Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Today I didn't bring any gold stars with me on my morning travels. Instead, I plugged in to me, recharged my batteries to better focus. I had to get a grip on myself in order to give another day.

I danced and leaped and did cartwheels in the park, broken glass be damned. Beautiful blue sky overhead, birds chirping in the trees, I twirled and twirled and twirled.

I have recently rediscovered, or maybe discovered anew (I can't remember for sure) my love of cartwheels. They take a fair amount of faith, especially when approaching 40. The directions for trying to do cartwheels on wikiHow also apply to trying to live:

**If you aren't confident trying on your own, find a 'spotter.'

**Try it downhill!

**If you don't get it at first, don't be frustrated! It takes time and practice. Don't get discouraged if you can't do it on even the tenth try.

**Be careful and try not to hurt yourself!!!!

**Always try your best and persevere.

**It will get better once you practice a lot.

Do try. On something soft at first, and maybe with a spotter. And don't be too hard on yourself if at first you don't succeed. But try. They're really, really fun.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Mopping for Montauk

He walked in to the cafe with his mop.

"Can you do my floors?" I joked. "I live just down the street...they really need it."

"Yah, you know, my wife's making me do the floors."

"Wow," I said, "How does she do that? Good woman!"

"Nah, it's a partnership. I just got back from surfing for 10 days, or sometimes I'll go off to Montauk overnight..."

"And then you come home and mop?" I asked.

"Yah, it's what you do if you want to stay happily married."

His philosophy on relationships was so pithy, so simple: he mopped so he could go to Montauk. Of course, it was a little more complicated than that. She was pregnant, he said, despite him not really wanting a third baby. Again, though, as long as he got to go surfing, it was all good... He was so nonchalant, so chill. He was a surfer after all. I hoped his wife was just as relaxed and happy about their compromises. I hoped it worked for both of them. He deserved a gold star for trying either way, for recognizing and saying aloud what he gets and what he is required to give. The shrug he gave as he left the cafe with his coffee and his mop in hand said it all: it might not be perfect, but it was the choice he made when he signed on for a partner.

It is no easy feat, maintaining a relationship. We all get stuck in our camp, often asking for more than we offer in kind. But relationships are, by their very nature, interdependent. That's the point. If you don't want to be dependent or don't expect that someone will depend on you, you can't engage. Or you can, but people will be angry, and you should at least see their anger coming.

I have a friend who is always swearing off relationships once the anger ensues.

"That's it, I'm going to be celibate," he proclaimed one day, tired of the ire he inspired by claiming independence while demanding intimacy. I looked at him, confused, he whose sexual needs were no secret to anyone.

"Really?!" I said. "You are going to be celibate?"

"Oh, not sexual celibacy," he said, correcting my clear misunderstanding. "Relationship celibacy..."

Right. Wouldn't that be ideal? It made sense for him, if only it were possible. What most people are looking for in even the briefest of brief physical intimacies is some sort of closeness. If that's achieved, people who like the experience might actually call or text or expect something from you. Voila, relationship begun, like it or not.

I gave a woman a gold star today for trying to move past a disappointing relationship, one that had looked for a brief time like love. She had expected something from someone who pulled the ol' bait and switch, playing with her desire for a partner by proclaiming it a possibility, then deciding instead on his own brand of emotional celibacy. She was sad, angry. Rightfully so. She said sayonara and he, surprisingly, was surprised. He had imagined, like many people do, that he could dabble and dally without deciding. She wasn't playing, wasn't in it for the week or two a year he wanted. I didn't blame her. Good for her for getting out early if she wanted more than he could or would give. She wants someone who is at least willing to wield a mop after he gets what he desires. Her search continues.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Can't We All Just Get Along?

He was angry, my friend. He didn't want to take off his jacket and his belt at the security checkpoint, to empty his pockets. He had waited in line for the godforsaken ferry to Liberty Island for too long, and this was too much. The embittered guard took the brunt of his anger and gave it right back. The two were locked in battle over the stuff spilling out over the edge of the black bucket. No one was budging. It was war.

I ended the stand-off, tamping down sleeves and sending the bucket through. I was next up. I smiled. I followed the guard's orders and gave him a gold star. "You deserve this," I said. He gave me a big smile, thanked me and placed it proudly on his chest. He was a different person. His co-worker was jealous. "Hey," he said, "that's not part of the uniform..." and then, "Why does he get one?" I gave him one too (the big one he said he deserved) and one to the woman seated in front of the screen, scanning for danger. They were all laughing and smiling, anger diminished.

My friend couldn't believe I'd given the "obnoxious" guard a gold star, didn't think he deserved one. I begged to differ. "You were angry at him even though it wasn't his fault you had waited, that you had to take off all your stuff. And he was fucking with you," I said (forgetting in my fervor that there were little ears present.)

It is awful to be suspected when you know you are not a terrorist, to strip down nearly bare, vulnerable, to be judged as you walk through a sensor. "What if they make us take off our underwear?" my 7-year-old son had suggested. Soon, I thought, soon.

But our upset over this demeaning ritual is displaced on to the people carrying out the orders. We wonder why they are unpleasant but we are generally the creators or at least the contributors to this unpleasantness. We do not think to thank them, to smile, to make a bad situation slightly better. They do not think of those things either. They are so used to annoyed people that they are ripe for battle when it comes, taking out on individuals what the general population has wrought, wielding what little power they have to fight back. Someone needs to be strong enough to break the cycle. Some days it is easier than others.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wishing a Gold Star Would Always Work...

Yesterday, it was said that I was cheerful. Well, that was then, and this is now.

I couldn't muster the energy to get up early today, didn't feel like getting out of bed at all, and others at the cafe seemed to be the same, disjointed and grumpy. Sometimes I think the universe has proclaimed it an off day, and not just with the threat of rain. I can be happy in the rain, oblivious to it, or enjoying it, even without an umbrella or rain boots, giving myself over to it. But something else is in the air today, something that feels very akin to doom. (Warning: do not read on if you are subject to depression.)

A man heard me talking to the guy behind the counter about his gold star. He was wearing it, had chosen the shirt he'd left it on on purpose, but didn't really know why. He said when asked what it meant to him, that it meant nothing. But still, he proffered, "I like it, I wear it..."

As I sat down, the curious stranger questioned me at length after I gave him his gold star. In hindsight I can see it clearly: he was looking for hope. He immediately checked out the blog on his Blackberry so as not to forget, and suggested after some conversation about the responsibility we all have to bear on the current economic crisis, on the displaced anger at only a select few, "Maybe you call the blog 'a bailout for each of us'?!"

But who, he wanted to know, asking in his thick Hispanic accent, was responsible for deciding who deserved a gold star? Surely, he said, there has to be someone put in place to judge...

I laughed. "Everyone deserves one," I said, "Anyone can give them out. It is about the receiver, not the giver. People have to come to the deserving feeling themselves once they get the gold star. It's up to them."

"Maybe some people should get an angry face instead of a gold star?!" he suggested, leaning toward me with feeling, basically begging me to differ and defend well my reasoning.

I tried. "No! That is exactly the point! People who are angry are just angry because they never got enough encouragement, enough recognition of their greatness. It is a cycle we need to break," I argued optimistically, invoking the pointlessness of death row, of our penal system's unrepentant punishment model. There had to be a way to turn people around! The gold star was at least a start...It was his turn to laugh.

"I put bad people in jail," he said, leaning back in his chair, coming clean about where he was coming from. In his human rights work, he said, "it's hard to have hope for someone who has killed 100,000 people."

I often say the Holocaust could happen again, and does every day in different ways. We are primed for it in the way we like to blindly believe, to find easy answers. This man knows that's true, is working to figure how to put a stop to it. Not easy. I should have given him a ream of gold stars.

I wanted to go to yoga, but knew, at this point, that it would probably be useless. People sling yoga mats over their shoulders these days as a sign of spiritual wealth much like they drive BWMs as a sign of external success. But it's not that easy. You have to be able to breathe and believe, to really relax and elongate. And some days it isn't easy. It is just going through the motions. The energy outside Studio B at the Y as people wait anxiously for yoga to begin on Saturday mornings is so toxic it would take 10 straight hours of intensely focused meditation and yoga in a silent Ashram in India to recover, I often think.

I decide against yoga and talk with a woman who really deserves her gold star, who is trying so hard to protect her kids and herself and, of course, her husband, from the reality of her husband's terminal cancer. Just getting up in the morning, getting dressed hopefully in beautiful scarves and jewelry, getting to work, is a major accomplishment for her.

I leave the cafe in a state, but I manage to get to the gym and run it out, at least for 15 minutes. On my way home, I pick up a piece of wood from a pile of abandoned building parts. I always want to pick up pieces of wood. Somehow, they inspire in me a sense of possibility, of what could be if you work at something. The piece I grab is finished on the edges, for I am practical after all. I know I am not likely to start sawing wood anytime soon, though I'd like to. Carpenter is one of my top 10 dream jobs. But, for now, with this finished, slatted wood piece, I can immediately envision it's new life: on it, I will place a plant, in the hopes that it will live and grow, happy.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Cool-haired Traveler, Old with Panache, et al

In my travels into Manhattan today, I found so many deserving folks.

First off, down into the subway at 7th Ave., I identified with the banjo player playing to few, sometimes to no one. Writing a blog is the same, trying out talents without buy-in from the powers that be, the publishers and music moguls who might or might not recognize the gifts you have to give.

On the F train, I saw a girl whose hair I liked so much I just had to give her a gold star. It stood straight up, curls upon curls, like a tall afro except she was white, visiting from Washington State it turned out.

"Hey, cool, thanks!" she said, reaching out to take the star from me. After a bit of time, she asked. "Are you a teacher, or why are you giving out gold stars...just to be nice?"

I told her the story, told her to check out the blog. She said she might try to give out stars herself in her hometown. I could see her doing it.

She thought New York was pretty good, but too expensive.

"I could have a lot more fun if I had money," she said, quickly adding, "Not that I'm not having fun, but..."

She had been to the Met, but not gone in. Too overwhelming. I suggested some other less daunting choices, like the New Museum in Soho. She had seen Times Square. She thought Williamsburg was really cool. I wished her luck as she got off at York, in Dumbo. She thanked me for the star and waved back, her fabulous hair bobbing ever so slightly as she moved.


The elderly man, smiling, made his way slowly, like a stoned turtle, up the subway stairs. He deserved a star. "Well, thank you young lady!" he said,taking it, his smile growing wider, stretching out his wrinkles. "You have a great day, au revoir!" he said.

"You too!" I said, appreciating anew the speed with which I took the next set of stairs.

Aphorisms come mostly from ads in our society, I notice. They come at a price. "Every Day Matters," shouts a JC Penney billboard. Nice sentiment, but I don't trust it coming from the source. Rarely is a message imparted without a sales pitch attached. I want to let people know about the blog, but it seems almost against the point. Their star shouldn't come with strings, just a supposition: that they are trying.


"Hey Sexy!" a dreadlocked dude on his cell phone yells out, opening the door of the Manhattan Mall in busy Midtown to beckon a beautiful woman, jeans stretched tight over her ample bottom. I interrupt his call to give him a star.

"Hold on," he says to the person on the other end, looking at me quizzically as I hand him the glittery gold.

"Just for trying," I say. "Good job." I leave him laughing.


I meet my friend, the mother of my first friend at college, for lunch near Penn Station.

"How are you?" I ask amiably.

"Good," she says, but then reconsiders. "Fine, I'm fine...you know." She works in finance. Say no more.

"I have something for you," I say, reaching into my bag.

"Is it $50 million? Or some new clients? 'Cause that's what I need," she says.

I give her the gold star, a big one. It's all I can do.

She is aghast when her star goes missing from her lapel after lunch. She looks and looks for it, as do the guys at the next table, for which they get stars. One guy is happy with his small one, asks where I got it. His friend is unsatisfied. He deserves the big one, he says. OK, I say, and give it.

I wonder: why do some people feel they are more deserving than others? Is that a good thing? As a mother, I try hard to instill confidence in my children, but am cautious. Too much is too much. I want people to want the big stars for themselves, to feel deserving, but at what point does it cross the line into conceit, into greed? It is a question we all should be asking ourselves right now, one we haven't considered enough. For that, we are facing dire consequences.

Loving Yourself Naked

A friend to whom I'd explained the gold star concept said to me at the gym yesterday that she'd been thinking about it. "Who do you decide gets the gold star?" she asked. She is a highly accomplished person. I always envy her directedness. I am much more scattershot in my approach.

"You know," I said, "Everybody deserves one, that's the point." I motioned to all the hard-working folks who had managed to get their bodies to the gym and on to metal machines where they ran or pedaled or pushed, like rats on a wheel. They were all trying, whether to lose weight, get strong, feel better, no matter. "But it doesn't feel special, if I were just to go around handing them out to everyone. It has to be the right moment...There is no specific plan."

You have to know just the moment a star deserves to shine, be paying attention when it comes.

I was sitting at the end of the bar at a tapas restaurant in Manhattan last night, just after it opened, waiting for a friend. The waiters were gathered with nothing to do nearby. I was eavesdropping slightly when I heard one of the waiters say something about going somewhere naked. Another waiter shook his head. "You shouldn't go naked dude," he said.

The other waiter stood his ground, stood up for his rights, didn't bend. "But I look great naked!" he said proudly.

I looked up and met the gaze of the bartender. We laughed. "Good to know..." I said.

My friend arrived and we moved to a table, where Mr. Looks Great Naked soon visited, somewhat sheepishly.

"No worries," I said, "I think that's great. Though now, frankly, I can't stop picturing you naked..." As he blushed, I reassured him that, as the tables were bar height, it was only from the waist up. I reached into my bag and took out the biggest gold star on the sheet.

"You know what," I said, "You deserve a gold star. Loving yourself naked is awesome, and you should feel very proud." He accepted graciously and proceeded to pick out for us, in his boosted confidence state, some of the best tapas dishes I have ever tasted: croquettes with mushrooms and a delicious red-pepper mayonnaise, a lamb, arugula and onion crisp bread, octopus rice...Yum! I love this gold star project!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Blind Hope

This morning, I encountered gracious receivers.

"Oh...I haven't gotten one of these in years!" one woman said, grinning as she placed her gold star prominently on her sweater.

"My boyfriend used to tell me, when I said I was trying, 'Yes, you are. Very,'" her friend said in an Irish brogue I always think sounds jaunty even if the words are jaded.

One is in nursing school after a decade in advertising. She fears microbiology, but she is forging forward, facing science and math in the hopes it can help her help others and herself. I shudder just thinking about it and give her great props. I dropped out of Physics and failed seven Trigonometry tests in a row in high school, no thanks to my tutor who only came over for my Mom's apple pie. The nurse-to-be well deserves her gold star for getting past such a daunting fear. The other was, she was sad to report, going back to working a full week after years of being off on Fridays, in need of an extra day's pay. She deserved her star too. Their daughters, schoolmates, making a rainbow together in their bright, happy tights and skirts, played happily under the counter, letting their mothers alone to chat before drop-off.

We got on to the topic of later-in-life schooling, how choosing to really learn something, because you want to, because you've decided it might make you happy, not just for the "A," is a good thing. The cost of college-just-cuz is too high, the pressure of recouping your investment too great if you aren't really going to appreciate the experience, really care. Hard to justify hundreds of thousands of dollars just to get a piece of paper that has the potential for a payoff...someday, by someone and often (I dare say because of that investment)financially remunerative enough to at least begin to pay back your debts and still pay the rent. It is limiting, especially to people who might want to play music or draw or write or cook, to do things that do not promise a weekly paycheck or, if they do, a very weak one.

I have begun recently, unconventionally, to hope my children choose something more passionate than a four-year college or at least consider other options, that they are not limited by the restraints of how society has set up formal higher education as a must. It is a relief, selfishly, to imagine my whole life doesn't have to be overshadowed by the looming expense of their overpriced degrees, documents that will almost necessitate them entering fields they may not love. The way society is heading, where we seem nearly ready to face the fact that the capitalist system is, by design, greedy, maybe things will look different when my youngest, who is 5, finishes high school. I can only hope.

Are we surprised that bonuses are crucial for AIG employees, for Wall Street? Did we think these people weren't motivated by money and that, if the money disappeared, they would still sit happily in front of their spreadsheets? Nothing against spreadsheets, there is something satisfying about them to some people, like my husband, but there is a reality, and most of us have chosen not to see it. It's time, as my friend Sally likes to say, to walk into the room of mirrors.

When I speak, loud and fast and angry, about the fallacy of believing that College in and of itself is a savior, that Obama can offer easy "Change," that a marriage license means happily ever after, I am accused of lacking idealism. And my accusers are correct. I think blind hope is a problem. For things that are worth it, to make them worth it, it takes hard work.

"You fall pretty hard when you haven't faced reality," I said to my newest gold-star recipients. I think of myself as a positive realist, which sometimes reads to people like negativity. It's just that I don't want to be surprised. I want to take on the responsibility of consciousness, not to control the outcome or even know it 'cause I don't think that's possible, but to be ready for any eventuality. All of what comes comes from what came before. We can see it if we choose to look back. Idealism is just imagining all the shoulds. It is a waste of time.

I have tried, of late, to take "should" out of my vocabulary. I hear it too often, along with tears, from little, begging mouths. It seems so easy to see the fallacy in small childrens' thinking, in their pouty blind hope for a lollipop at breakfast or for cable TV from a mom who will never have it in her house. (Hear that, Eli?) But our own blind hope seems as it should be. It only gets worse with time. And we are bound to be disappointed when our expectations exceed possibility. I know. It happens to me all the time. Like thinking giving out gold stars and writing a blog about it could go somewhere and help me justify hanging out in cafes and talking to people, like it is a valid excuse for learning in 3-D at the low,low price of a double Americano.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Withholding Stars

I'm going to come clean. I withheld a star today from someone who probably needs it the most, just because her attitude makes me angry. I am not proud of myself. I know that, in the spirit of giving, giving even to those who are misguided is important.

This woman is a pilates teacher. She is standing up (or laying down, alternately) to try to help and inspire and instead she is preaching intolerance.

"Ladies, ladies," she said during my first--and last--class with her recently. "Do not look around. If you do, you will be disappointed in yourself because so rarely do people look at someone else doing a beautiful move and say 'good for her...'"

This was guidance? Inspiration? No. Unfortunately, in this neighborhood and in so many others, that is often true. People can't be happy for other people. Hers was a statement on the sad state of our society, on our jealousy and lack of self-confidence, on our utter inability to cheerlead. What she's saying is that "You go girl..." is just a pipe dream in Park Slope.

But that is ridiculous. She should not be in the position that she's in, trying to help others try. She is not trying hard enough, listening to what she might be saying beneath her words. My friend and I laughed when the words came out, more in surprise probably than that we found it funny. But in the days since then I have found myself retelling the story in anger. We are in the world with others. We cannot help but look, and when we do we should be able to get inspired by their beauty, by their strength, by all the things we see that we strive for in our self.

A yoga teacher whose class I frequently attend captured the essence of what this pilates teacher was, I think, getting at far better. "As you practice," she said, "think about yourself, believe in your practice." Then, she paused, thinking. "I don't even know what that means," she laughed. She might have added or I just heard in my head afterward, "It means whatever it means to you."

That is the theory of the gold star. Its only meaning is whatever it means to you. Believe in it, others be damned.

One lady, today, took her gold star and asked if she could use it in a centerpiece she was creating for a class. She is trying, later in her life, after a career as a journalist, to become a decorator. She has gone back to school at great personal and financial cost. She is passionate about it. Good for her. I told her, of course, "You can use it however you want. It is about you, not about me!"

Another woman brightened visibly after I placed the gold star on her chest. She had stumbled in to the cafe with her behemoth of a stroller, apologizing as she bumped patrons, mortified that her teething baby was wailing, intermittently but uncontrollably. Poor thing. Both of them deserved a star, the mom for her efforts to help the baby, the baby for letting up on crying in between the pain of teeth breaking through sensitive gums. I decided the baby could easily choke and die on the star, so opted against giving her one. I think that was best. The plan is not to kill the crying babies, but to help the moms feel better which, in turn, will ease the babies' burden. It is a cycle after all.

Getting Up The Giving Spirit

Part of trying is getting up the gumption to give, even when you feel sour.

The transition to spring is always a challenge. Winter is low pressure, making the best of a bad situation. There are a few fun things to do, like ice skating or skiing, but the possibilities are not abundant. It is easy to sleep in, while away the morning hours, let the kids watch TV or play computer, bake, and not feel the guilt. When the weather begins to warm, the sun to shine, I watch the clock anxiously as I try to get everything done around the house, the laundry folded and the dishes put away. We must get outside, I think. Pressure mounts.

And what to wear? I have yet to clean out my closets or the kids', to buy new clothes, new shoes for the season ahead. And anyway the varying temperature outside ensures whatever I put on will be wrong in an hour. I changed three times one day last week, from capri pants and sandals and a leather jacket to jeans and boots and my winter coat then settled on jeans with boots and a leather jacket. Aaaargh! I am from Arizona. We never had spring. I will never cotton to it. When it's time for tank tops, tell me, I think.

I know that other people feel grumpy too but can't put their finger on why. I name my reasons and they sometimes relate, sometimes not. Maybe those are not their issues. Transitions are always hard and not always easy to see. We are, besides the weather change, in a huge transition. Even if things haven't changed materially for people, they have, because they might. It's a vague looming threat hanging over everyone with the potential to derail long-made plans and tear dreams asunder, even the conservative ones built on basic, realistic expectations let alone the big ones. It's all up for grabs. Everyone has their own or others' stories to share of pay cuts, terminations, tightening of belts. It is why I started giving out the gold stars.

Some days, though, it is hard to get up the gumption. Even knowing what I know, that the people who think I'm crazy still want one, it is hard to be in a bad mood and hand out a silly glittery star to people with the feeling necessary to make it worthwhile. But I make myself. It's just like getting out of bed when you feel your entire being glued to the sheets. You just do it. Because you have to.

The other day, the sweet friendly man behind the meat counter at my local market did a little dance when I gave him his big gold star. He sang a song, a kids' rendition of "Nanny, nanny boo boo..." to his co-workers. "Iiiiii gotttt a sttttttar," he mocked, placing it squarely on his baseball cap. I offered them stars too, but by then it was too late. He alone owned the star for that area.

I saw the butcher yesterday, he popped in to a cafe where I was to say hi and remind me to bring in my knives so he could sharpen them as he promised. His gold star shone brightly on his cap.

"You're still wearing your star," I said, "good for you!"

"Oh yeah," he said, "It fell off three times but I put it back." With a wave and a big smile he was gone. As I thought of him, I vowed to give out more stars despite my silly spring blues.

I brought them to a party in the afternoon, though I didn't quite have it in me to break them out. In conversations where I had to come up with what I "do", I told a few people about my project. I didn't even mention I had any with me. But before I left, one girl was adamant: "I need a gold star," she said. "I'm going on a blind date, and I need it..."

I went to my purse and took out the sheet of stars. I gave her a big one, 'cause blind dates are hard, and proceeded to place smaller ones on everyone else. People seemed pleased rather than put off. The girl going on a date she was already worried would be bad took the host's star as well and added it to her own on her chest. "He doesn't need it," she said. "I do." I hope it helped!!!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Star Archetypes

On day three of giving out gold stars, archetypes of receivers began to emerge.

The Gracious Receiver. This person has been waiting eagerly for someone to recognize their greatness. When they even catch a glimpse of the gold, glittery star, they know they deserve one, really the biggest one on the page. They grab for it voraciously and place it prominently on their person.

A stay-at-home mom friend, a neighbor, pushing her fiery redheaded daughter in the stroller, fell into this camp. She looked at me with such gratitude as I took out the stars. "You have noidea how much I needed this today..." she said. "Thank you so much!" She hugged me, hard. "You made my day!" Luckily, I get a lot of gracious receivers. Joseph, the stroller valet at the YMCA I go to, likewise gave me a big bear hug, told me how much he loved me and graciously received his star, offering up that he deserved it for explaining to distraught parents all day that the pool would be closed for the next eight weeks. Not an easy task but one one I'm sure he handled with aplomb.

The Martyr Receiver. "No, no," the martyr says when offered a star after having wondered out loud why someone else was receiving one. "Give it to someone who really needs it..." I laugh, knowing the Martyr, more than anyone, needs a star, wants one so much they are afraid to even admit it. I, of course, make them take one and it is not really a hard sell. They take it, put it on just as prominently as the gracious receiver, though they do it without a hug of gratitude.

The Jokester/Deflector. This person will make fun of the concept of the star even though they secretly love it and want one. The constant comic, a store owner friend in the neighborhood saw me handing out stars and said, "You know, the last time they started handing out yellow stars, it didn't end well..." I laughed. I'd been waiting for someone to make the Holocaust connection. When I offered him the star, though, he took it gladly and rebuked himself slightly for making fun of a nice thing.

The Disconnected. These people don't get it, can't quite cotton to the concept. "A star?" they ask, "For what?" When I tell them it's just for trying they ask, "trying what?" I just give them the star. "I'm sure you tried at something today," I say. They take it, confused. Maybe they'll think about it, maybe not, I cannot worry.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Gold Star Project

I was sitting at a PTA meeting not long ago, listening to a very organized mom talk about a new empowering program for the kids at PS 107, a Math SuperStars program, that would take place before school (ensuring that my kids would never be involved!)Included in the elaborately conceived program was a plan, she said, "to give the kids gold stars, just for trying."

A mom friend next to me, who had quit her job to stay home with the kids and fulfill all the thankless tasks that go along with that, let out an audible sigh. I looked over at her and saw real, honest desire in her eyes: "I want one of those..." she said quietly, almost under her breath. I burst out laughing, causing a stir as per usual. But I couldn't help it. It was brilliant. It was true. It was her childhood self speaking out from her adult mouth. We all want one of those, we deserve one!

Recognition can't come often enough. Job managers do a terrible job, so do spouses and parents and friends. Why do we think only elementary school teachers and volunteers need be cheerleaders and champions of efforts made, of even the smallest attempts to succeed??

We need to get back to that time when teachers were rewarding us with gold stars, to tap into that feeling of great potential and live with that potential in mind, no matter where it gets you. A friend said recently that potential is nothing until realized. I totally disagree. Who decides what realization is? And when you get to that intended place, that place that you or others have decided is the end, what do you do then? Potential has to rear its head again. We better get used to enjoying the process.

I thought of this the other day when I was feeling down, feeling sorry for myself at the possibility that the great effort and emotion I had poured into a piece of writing and actually had the guts to submit for publication might very well get rejected. To boost myself I thought, "well, at least I'm trying." And then it occurred to me: I deserve a gold star! So, I thought, do other people who had probably likewise realized at some point during their day, without recognition, that they'd done a good job at work, they'd gotten the laundry folded, volunteered their precious time, scooped up dog poop, wiped up baby vomit for the 15th time...whatever it was they felt they'd at least tried to do. Everyone would appreciate a little acknowledgment.

I was more right than I could have guessed. The responses, from the very first star, were amazing. A man in line at a cafe I frequent asked me about the sheet of stars in my hand and I explained. "They're just for trying." Immediately, with sadness in his eyes, he spoke of his recent reluctant return to the States after a trip to South America.

"It's hard to be back in America, but you're trying, right?" I said.

"It is hard," he said, nodding in agreement. "I am trying."

"Do you want a star?" I asked, still a bit wary that people would want them, would actually wear them on this, my initial mission.

"Oh, yes, please!" he nearly begged. I gave it to him, this hopeful stranger, and as he placed it on his person, a grin grew on his face from ear to ear. Wow.

The afternoon continued just like that. People varied in their response, but nearly to a one knew immediately why they deserved one or even two stars, maybe even the biggest one on the sheet. Most had me place it smack dab on their chest so they could show it off proudly, this gold, glittery star that showed them to be a person of some merit, for what it didn't matter. My mood had turned completely around as the stars I had given shined up people's days, made them feel good about themselves. They walked away with the stars, thinking not of the giver but of themselves, of how--like a child-they could be great, were great. Just for trying.

I ran out of stars yesterday and nearly caused a fight as deserving folks began to dicker over who was more deserving. I bought more today and plan never to be without them. I have a picture of one on my phone to send quickly to those far away who are in need. I am very enthusiastic about my Gold Star Project. In fact, I'm giving myself a gold star right now.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Open Door

Today, in one of my many cafe conversations, I met an Israeli woman who is in this country, in Brooklyn, because it offers her the opportunity to meet people of all kinds. She is open to ideas, happy to put down the book she is reading on her rare day off, her precious time away from her new baby, in the hopes that talking to me can bring real-life inspiration.

I shared with her that I have not been to Israel. As a Jew, I did not want to go with the mission of praising and protecting the Chosen People. I wanted to see the long-polarized region whole, to go when I could also visit an Arab country or at least areas of Arab peoples, to see both sides. I am ready to go. I finally have a friend in Beirut, I told her. Her eyes got sad as she told me that she cannot visit Lebanon, that Lebanese people cannot visit Israel. But she has heard it's beautiful...

I am naive. I cannot believe it takes a U.S. passport to have the right to go anywhere. I have to be reminded of that often. Like today, or like in the early 90s when my American friend, who runs free elections in Asia, was airlifted out of Cambodia right away with the other Americans during a coup. I reminded this friend of the time being American saved her ass when, in her hatred of Bush, she thought of renouncing her citizenship.

But it is so wrong to keep people out of other countries,so dumb if you have any desire for peace, ever. It is so easy to hate people you are not allowed to know, to fail to appreciate the beauty of cultures from which you are banned. It is what starts holocausts, not ends them. We close our eyes enough to the people right around us, creating borders that can't be crossed is asinine.

But history is our precedent much as we like to forget: minds are easily manipulated. It happens every day in ways we don't even question. Even to me, who wrote about marketing for a decade, who should know better. None of us are impervious. People were so happy to believe Obama's simple promise of "Change," few questions asked, though the ability to do so is much, much, much easier said than done. Champagne corks popped on election night, way too early for my taste. People are also so happy to pay more to buy organic foods 'cause marketers and media have managed to make the term synonymous with "good," like "Christian" for the believers. So few know why it's good or even if it is. They just want to believe. They pay more to ease their minds. Would that it were that easy. Reality check: it's impossible to achieve organic on a mass scale, despite what Wal-Mart says. And even if people don't care, if they are the kind who have no qualms about snagging the last lifeboat, it should be said that the moniker is used more often than it could possibly be true. The media will only out people every so often, since the story is boring after the hundredth headline, and the government has bigger fish to fry, but it is a fact. I can say that now that I am not on anyone's masthead.

Speaking about the lies people love to believe, my new Israeli friend told me a funny story she'd heard about free-range chickens, for whose eggs and bodies people pay a premium.

"Do you know," she said, "that because they are so used to being together, when the door to the cage is opened, the chickens don't actually leave?" She laughed. "The door is open, but they don't leave."

"That is classic," I said. "Perfect analogy to life: people just want to know that the door to possibility is open, they don't even necessarily have to go through it...We'll pay more for the possibility that something's better, even if somewhere deep inside we know it's probably not."

Maybe, though, just having the freedom to run, even if they don't, makes chickens taste better. I could believe that, I want to. "Free-range is a mental state.." sounds like a great bumper sticker for my Subaru.