Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Fear is everywhere, from basic ones such as getting wet in the rain, to more blinding ones, such as dying from swine flu. I meet so many people every day, on the street, in cafes, in the schoolyard, people who are working hard to cope with the whole range of their worries. As they speak or as I do, they close their eyes, try to breathe through the moments of panic.

A woman yesterday told me of her fantasy to get over her rain aversion, to go out and play in the pouring rain like a kid, to find a friend who can do that with her. "A rain date!" I said. Perfect. I loved that idea. I gave her a gold star. She was indulged as a child, she told me, and has spent a lifetime trying to overcome being coddled and protected. She works hard every day to take the reigns, to fight her demons and let herself go out unprotected from the elements.

I have recently worried far less about the rain, walking through it without complaint, enjoying not have to plan and prepare for it, to protect myself. Granted, I usually have nowhere to be looking nice, I can have wet hair and pants and not care. I like it that way, but I know I am lucky in that. Still, I know plenty of people with nowhere to be who take major precautions, curse the blessed rain. Why? It is control, I sometimes think. We listen to the weather, look at satellite photos to try to predict and control what we cannot know for sure. I laugh when people say its definitely going to rain, or not. They do not know.

This morning, I ran into a man I used to see daily at a cafe I frequented. He saw me writing and mentioned that he couldn't write his way out of a paper bag when he was younger. "I failed communications three times," he said. "It's something I just don't get." He learned, though, when it meant money in his pocket, when he had to write convincingly for business. Somehow, from his one-time fear of writing, we got on to the subject of sexual attraction and his fear of being attracted, he said, "to so many women."

I smiled. "Of course," I said. "Sexuality is life force. If you give it up, you know what happens?"

"You die?" he said. I nodded. Giving up on the idea of attraction to others, to connecting with who you connect with is like dying before you die, I'm convinced of it. Films, books, everything are all about the fantasy of allowing those things you might deny yourself in 3D, things you fear.

"I refuse to give it up..." he said. "But it scares me a little."

A little? That is, likely, an understatement, although maybe it is true for him that it is only a little, since he is so willing to cop to it. He is divorced, has a girlfriend, but still talks to women, like the one he just couldn't not speak to on the A train recently. "She was SO interesting!" he said.

I love that he allows himself the possibility of passion, even for a moment. For that, he got a gold star

My husband called me in a panic about the swine flu. There is so much in the media, all around. So many people went to Mexico over Spring Break. I told him he's insane. If we worry about that, we need to worry more about crossing streets in busy Brooklyn. More people die every year from car accidents. And, if in fact there is an outbreak, what can we do? We'll deal with it. Or we won't. Like the rain. Whether or not we try to prepare, all we can do is deal with it when it comes.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Receivers, Relationships

I've been giving out gold stars for more than a month now. Many people I have given them to have kept them on their person, on their hats, their nametags, their favorite shirt. Others have put them somewhere safe, like their dashboards or their wallets or their cash registers. Still others have been given new ones on days they seem to need it. I have run into so many of the original receivers repeatedly in my small urban enclave, found out their names, met their children, their spouses, learned more about them. Sometimes I think, 'Shit. I might have to move.'

The receiver relationship doesn't just mirror a real relationship, it is one. Such a reality can't be avoided. When you engage with someone else, depend on them, let them depend on you, even in a momentary interaction, it's a relationship.

I thought the gold star could alleviate the guilt I have not saving every person I see. It was/is my little way of trying to help without getting enmeshed. But I have found that I am naturally enmeshed. I told a friend who is the same way that I would ship him a box of gold stars so he didn't have to get physically involved with every girl he sees. But he is smart. He knew it wouldn't work for him, just as it doesn't work for me.

It is very hard for me to walk away, especially when I see the same people day after day and know what they're going through, what they're grappling with. But the practice, on strangers especially, is a good one. People do have to believe in what they can do for themselves more than than they believe in what anyone else can do for them. I have to believe that for myself as both a giver and a receiver. Separation and independence are good things, things we need to learn for ourselves and our children. Boy, practicing them both is hard.

I learned today that the surfer who I featured in Mopping for Montauk is a fireman, a smart one, someone who eschewed a promotion to Captain and a bit more money for time with his family, with himself, with the sea. He is someone who gave up riding motorcycles, understanding it wasn't a risk he was willing to take just to feel cool and free for a few brief exhilarating moments. I now know his name, he knows mine. I will likely see him again soon. He might ask my advice, I might ask his. We might need each other one day. That's the way it works when you agree to live in a community, when you allow yourself to take on the responsibility of relationships.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What's Work?

She came in to the cafe with another woman, ordered her coffee to go. As she walked out, past a couple who had just come in and sat down, past me and a few others she did not know, she said loudly and aggressively to her friend, "I guess when people don't work, they drink coffee." I could sense rather than see her twisted glare. She was angry, but why? 'Cause she had to go to work? What did she know about the other people in the cafe with a few minutes to sit?

"She's making a lot of assumptions, isn't she?" I said to the girl next to me, who had turned around to look back at the woman after her comment and guffawed.

"She definitely is," she agreed, laughing and shaking her head. "And her words were meant for us, her friend was well ahead of her."

"People are angry, and it's amazing how that anger seeps out, isn't it?" I asked.

In this neighborhood as in so many others where a lot of people seem to have a lot, some people love to spend their time looking enviously at others, assuming their lives are easier, that they maybe don't have to work as hard if at all. But most everybody is working, on something, whatever it might be, whether or not they officially "go to work."

"What do you do?" I asked the girl.

"I'm a teacher," she said. "I teach creative writing at a college."

"Cool," I said. "I'm a writer, not always for money though these days," I was quick to explain, to defend.

She shook off the notion that I could be lumped into the category of non-working laze-about coffee drinkers though I probably could be. "Writing is hard work," she said.

"Yes, and sometimes it can feel like it's all for nothing," I said. "If it never gets published, does that mean it's not worth anything?"

She just nodded in understanding. I gave her and her boyfriend gold stars as I left, for all their work, for taking a few minutes to sit and chat and have coffee when they weren't at work, for not throwing stones enviously, angrily.

Later, working hard at the gym, I ran into an older Italian man, a dead ringer for Larry David, who was tanned from 17 days in Puerto Rico. I knew him only by his previous compliments on the tightness of my derriere and by various jokes he often told me at the expense of other people's religions and races.

"Thanks?!" I had said, laughing, when he spoke to me about my enjoying the view of my behind.

"I'm just being honest," he had said, gesturing to his heart.

"Well, I appreciate that then," I'd countered. "I expect that you'll tell me if you think I'm getting soft, if I slack off and need to work harder..."

Today, back from vacation, he was aggravated, annoyed to be back to the cold and rain of New York.

"But you get to see your buddies," I had said, referring to the gaggle of guys that lifted weights together, taking long slow turns on the machines as they gabbed.

"Yeah, I missed the abuse. Did you miss the abuse?" he asked, looking straight at me with a smirk.

"Yes," I said, "Especially your racist jokes."

He looked unusually glum as he moved off into the corner and sat in the windowsill, not his chipper trouble-making self, so I went to get him a gold star. When I gave it to him, "Just for trying, I know it's hard to be back," I said, he took it tentatively.

"Oh," he said, smiling, "I thought it was a Star of David. I thought you were trying to convert me..."

"Nope," I said. "Enjoy!Have a great day!"

I worked, after the gym, on my writing, furtive futile efforts to tell the story I want to tell honestly and engagingly, to begin it anew for the zillionth time for a new writing class. Frustrating. I was working so hard, I failed to notice the time and nearly missed an appointment. It was raining and I needed to be on the other side of Park Slope ten minutes ago. The thought crossed my mind that maybe, even in the rain, I could dare to dream that there might be a cab, though they hardly ever graced the area. I had laughed off the idea, figured I would be extremely lucky to get one of the buses that passes by every half hour or so, but assumed I'd probably end up running there, getting drenched and arriving later than late.

As I walked out of my building, prepared to be positive about my trek, a rarely-seen yellow taxi was approaching, empty, waiting for me.

I got in, laughing and enthusiastic about the gift I had just been given. "I have something for you," I said to the smiling driver, reaching into my bag and handing him a gold star through the plastic divider.

"Thank you!" he said, with a strong Indian accent. He thanked me again for the gold star as I got out. "No, thank YOU!" I said, jumping out dry and not nearly as late as I'd expected. I even had time to grab a cup of coffee. Nice. I love the way the world works sometimes.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Some Southern Comfort

There were instant grits along with the instant oatmeal at the free breakfast buffet at the Best Western. We were definitely in the South. We were only stopping briefly in North Carolina on our way further in, to Savannah, Georgia. The kids were happy to hit the road, trying to best our 12 hours straight in the car on the way home from Chicago recently. But we were taking it easy, stopping after a mere 9 hours to rest overnight, to brace ourselves for hitting the historic city made famous in modern times by Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Savannah did not disappoint. It is beautiful, its many grassy squares surrounded by awe-inspiring architecture and tall, magical trees dripping with Spanish moss. For Sale signs stood in many front yards in the Historic District, For Rent signs in the oversized windows in need of repair. In some desperate situations, there were both For Sale and For Rent signs, whichever came first I guess.

Back from my exploratory run, I hit the Hampton Inn Buffet, eschewing the grits for oatmeal. Bopping to my iPod tunes, I was caught by the woman replenishing the breakfast offerings, the biscuits and gravy and big slabs of ham. She laughed at my dancing and we started chatting. She spoke of her own efforts to work out, to lose weight, efforts stopped short for a time by a treadmill accident but then revived for the loss of two dress sizes...wow!! She still had a long way to go, but it was a process, she was trying. Good for her. She was studying botany, she said, trying to figure with a professor from Nairobi ways in which herbal remedies might offer savior. Her mother, who had cancer, could certainly benefit, she said. But we spoke of the difficulties of herbal or, really, any remedies. Physiologies differ, it's not easy. It all comes down to hard work, really, whether it be exercise, or saving yourself or those you love from disease. It all takes effort. I went up to my room and came back to give her a gold star. She loved it, giving me a big smile and placing it right on her nametag.

I hit a store later in the afternoon that featured the art of graduates of the Savannah College of Art & Design, a school that in the 30 years since its inception has taken over a slew of abandoned buildings and turned into a major draw for creative talent from all over the country. Talking to the manager/head buyer, himself a graduate of S.C.A.D., I told him I wanted to support these artists but that the prices were a little out of my range. "Maybe I can come back and buy something if I ever sell any of my writing..." I said.

"What are you writing?" he asked. I told him about my Gold Star Project, and I pulled out a star for him, just for trying. He was ecstatic.

"You made my day!" he said. "I AM trying...life is hard!" After a moment, placing his star proudly on his chest, he looked at me and said, "You're an American hero!"
It was the nicest thing anyone had said to me about my project. I stopped short of giving him a second star, but secretly I wanted to. When I walked out a bit later, having bought nothing, he thanked me again for the star. "It will have to do, in lieu of a promotion," he said.

People are really the same everywhere. North or South, they're pushing through their days, mostly feeling under-appreciated, unseen. But there is more salt in the South, more cream. My rings were tight around my swollen fingers after most meals. We did eat well a lot, though, despite the heavy hand of Southern chefs. We ate delicious crab legs, spice-rubbed shrimp and fat oysters on Tybee Island, just outside of Savannah, at the Crab Shack, where baby alligators lay like rocks for people to poke at and feed (if the heat was sufficient to make them snap, which it wasn't.)

At the suburban development that passed as a resort on the Isle of Palms outside Charleston, fine fixins were slim, but Charleston itself offered a delicious Shrimp and Crawfish Etouffe. Vicrey's in Mount Pleasant, right on beautiful Shem Creek (a recommendation made mercifully by the bad resort's bad-ass bartender, whose extra rum on my Pina Colada saved me and the resort management more than once)was the best meal we had,starting with Popcorn Crawfish and a dense black bean cake, then moving on to a Lowcountry Mix of shrimp, crab and crawfish over creamy grits. Yum. Grits are what us Northerners refer to as polenta, I determined, figuring it too late to gobble up more of them. We also ate Fried Chicken with sweet collard greens. Gold stars to the chef and the bartender.

Our trip's memories, captured in our minds rather than on film since our camera is busted, include many alligators in the wild and in captivity, the firing of a musket during a Civil War demonstration at Fort Pulaski, the strong swimming legs of a sea turtle at the Charleston Aquarium and a lot of billboard signs for a strange Mexican highway oasis just north of South Carolina called South of the Border. Other billboards too stand out, like the one asking if we'd rather go to Heaven or Hell? "Hell might be more fun," my husband reasoned.

We were happy to hit New Jersey. We loved slipping into the Southern pace for a time, but the crowded efficiencies of the North, sadly, seem to suit us better. Not to mention the lower sodium content. That's what vacations are for, though, right? To see how other people live and, hopefully, return happy that you've chosen your home for good reason.

Friday, April 10, 2009

No Truths, Just Trail Markers

Religion, medicine, it's all the same: purporting to spout "The Truth" on either would be a sham. Such are the conversations that, if you're lucky, get struck up at little league practice, with like-minded strangers.

Today, at a practice I arrived at late with my kiddies on a chilly day in Prospect Park, I placed a gold star on another parent, a lovely English woman, who felt as strongly as I did that so much of medicine is really mind over matter, prescription pads often as much a placebo for the soul as anything else. Doctors are dogged at the end of the day. Much like the Wizard of Oz, they know that they can sometimes do little but that expectations, especially for an answer in simple pill form, are ridiculously high. Religious leaders are in the same boat, proffering ceremonies and sermons of salvation even while they know how hard it is just to save themselves, that their own faith is tested on every single day.

Healing in every sense, like life, is a process, and no one knows which way it will go. All we can do is try. I've been offering congratulations and gracious thanks to doctors I meet lately, and religious leaders should get them too. As long as they're conscious ones. It is a hard time in their careers, this great time of cancers and concern.

The baseball mom offered that people see her cynicism about single truths as dour, but we both shook our heads in disagreement. Believing that there is no one answer is the highest form of hopefulness. If a doctor can't tell you exactly what something is or how long it will last, it could be nothing serious and go away quickly, especially if you will it to be so. Believing a doctor who tells you anything for sure is foolhardy. Like listening to the weather and saying "it's going to rain..." Even experts can just make their best guess, anybody who tells you differently is deluded. I love it when pregnant women dying to be done quote their doctors, saying "I'm definitely going today..." I love it more, evil told-you-soer that I am, when I see them weeks later, baby still inside rather than out.

Likewise with religion. If you believe there isn't one "right" answer in religion, the search can simply end, and with it wars that rage over such questions. With nothing more than a spiritual core, maybe based on traditions we grew up with or others that speak to us, we can just live, knowing that if we stay conscious, we are careening around the universe correctly. There are always signs, little synchronicities that appear like color-coded marks on trees in the woods to show you're on the path you chose. There are no truths, really, just trail markers.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

What If?

I am kicking myself right now for not breaking out a gold star for a gentleman whose level of trying really warranted one: children's book author and illustrator John Rocco.

As I sat listening him address a group of kindergarten, first- and second-grade kids this morning, telling them how he got to where he is, I was almost in tears. He showed pictures of himself in 1976, at 8, with a basketball and a crazy Italian-kid afro, and, more recently, drawing in his underwear at home in Brooklyn or at a wood table at the former home of his Belgian wife's family in the South of France.

He spoke of his first children's book, one he illustrated at the request of Whoopi Goldberg when she met him in the bar where he worked in Times Square, and his work as art director on Shrek. Then, he showed, with amazing love and pleasure, his labor of love, a book called Woof! Woof! He explained that he came to the idea having been asked to illustrate the story of the boy who cried wolf. His very different version, set in Asia, came to him when he asked a very simple question: What if?? What if the boy didn't have to be mean? What if the story were set somewhere very different than you might expect? What if the wolf loved vegetables? His beautiful book came out of that question as, it seems to me, do all good things.

We rarely stop to ask ourselves the important "what ifs..." What if I didn't make the beds? What if the laundry got put off another day? What if I didn't have to give up my dreams today for unsure dream-offering opportunities down the road? What-the-fuck-ever should really be what-the-fuck-if.

I had to do an exercise today for The Artist's Way, a book I shunned and shouldn't have right after college and am finally getting to. I had to write postcards to five friends. I opted against postcards, figuring the book was written long before facebook. But more important than the means I chose of reaching out was who I chose. At this juncture in my life, I chose five friends from my past and present who have wended around to find their way, who have set aside "shoulds" and "have-tos" and done their thing, often the hard thing, to try to find joy and meaning in their lives. They inspire me. They all get gold stars.

It is a time ripe to take chances as the sure things are no longer sure. Actually, as it turns out, they never were. We were just buying what we were sold, hook, line and stinkin' sinker. They, whoever They are I think we'd all like to know, made stuff seem pretty darn good. I wrote about marketing for more than a decade, so I know. Even those of us who think we're immune are vulnerable.

On this day of Passover, I hope to celebrate freedom, not just for the Jews but for everyone. Would that we all were free to ask, "What if?"

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Life is a trap...

My sister has come back from a walk in the woods in Oregon and is sitting in her trailer park, on a swing in front of a log cabin. I am in Brooklyn, in front of my computer in my loft duplex looking at budding trees surrounded by a miniscule amount of dirt in the middle of poured concrete. We are talking about the balance of inner and outer lives, of ponderers versus planners. She has been a ponderer, I have been a planner. Both of us often pine to be the other.

She has often had no money, but she has almost always had time. I have mostly made money but been strapped for time. Neither are ideal, but the middle is hard to manage. Many privileged people in Park Slope are trapped in the pricey lifestyles they have built, unable to jump off easily even if they're not necessarily loving what they have to lose. Likewise, people of less privilege, many who have chosen their more pondering lifestyles, many who are forced there by circumstances beyond their control, feel equally trapped. "Life is a trap," my sister said pithily, and for that she deserves a gold star.

The conscious life is often a crappy one. We are forced, if we look, to actually see. But, then, what to do?? There is no such thing as a perfect temple or church, but we want to believe. Schools and the perfect apartment never offer us nirvana, but we search for the best ones endlessly, researching and requesting more and more information so we can at least feel we've done our duty, feel we've tried in earnest to get the best, whatever we think that might be. We want to find the things that we guessed at in childhood games would make us "happy" when we had no clue. Turns out we don't know much more now.

A woman overheard me talking to the bartender at a great Italian restaurant at lunch where the mushroom crostini with truffle oil and fresh parmesan could actually be the answer to many of life's questions. She piped in with her own two cents on schools. She had opted out of the hard-to-navigate Brooklyn system, not choosing public or private, but creating her own home-school co-op with six other families for kids through third grade. They had hired a teacher but parental involvement was paramount as well. Was it perfect? Turns out, no. Parents are still crazy, even the ones who desire to do just the right thing.

"We're all crazy, just in different ways," I said. I realize that more and more as I call everyone I meet crazy and they label me the same. But this woman definitely deserved her gold star for trying something new, for trying to find a solution instead of just complaining about the many problems.

I myself have not come up with many solutions, I just like to rail on failing systems, on capitalism, fundamentalism, almost any ism I find. Even truisms are often totally false, I think.

I bought a book today, "Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy." I agree with author Eric Wilson's assessment that the puritanical "pursuit of happiness" notion has really become synonymous with a materialism that stands in stark contrast to relating to the world in richer ways, including, he offers, "embracing sweet sorrow."

I give gold stars to anyone I see crying as a general rule, both to help them see a brighter moment but also to reward their effort toward real feelings. If they let it out, who knows what beauty it will bring? Art is all the range of emotion from aching to ecstasy. So, if we let ourselves see outside our traps, is life.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Mother Love

Yikes! Taking on the topic of a mother's love is a tough one, tough but necessary for it gets at the heart of how deserving we feel of a gold star.

My own mother told me a story this weekend about jazz king Wynton Marsalis offering up in an interview that his mother never called him, not to say hi or to congratulate him on any of his accomplishments, his performances, his awards. But she called him recently to tell him she thought he'd done a good job with some work he'd done for a group of inner-city kids. For that, she thought, he deserved a call.

My mother thought that was great, since she is a big believer that parents today overpraise, with their bumper stickers touting their child's placement on the honor roll, with their constant "good job!" accompanied by wide fake smiles. And look at how well Wynton Marsalis turned out?! I disagreed. Mr. Marsalis is, in fact, very successful. But at what cost, I wondered, and why? To please who? The bumper stickers are all about the parents, not the kids, to show off their own efforts, and they merely underline the pressure put on grades and accomplishments, those that the parents deem worthy. The "good job!" epidemic, likewise, is only a thin cover for parents' guilt over not really ever feeling like good is good enough, for themselves or for their kids. It is a classic case of BS and kids, like dogs, sniff it from a mile away. It looks like there is praise abound but, at closer range, it looks mostly like pressure. At least, that's how I see it.

Take the adorable art teacher at my sons' school as example. She is young, smart, energetic and pregnant. When I congratulated her this morning on her as-yet small-bellied state, she waved off my enthusiasm. "I'm terrified!" she said.

"Do yourself a favor and try not to think too far ahead," I said, knowing as I said it how nearly impossible that is when facing the fact that you are soon to give life. "Pregnancy is like a bad meeting, where there is talk and talk and all kinds of information shared, much of it neurotic and worrisome, and then--push comes to shove--decisions are made by an individual in the moment."

"I know, but there are so many strollers to choose from, and our apartment is so small and messy..." she said. She was thinking of staying in her one-bedroom, not moving in panic so she could give the baby a big, beautiful newly painted room with all the trimmings.

"Don't put so much pressure on yourself, the baby doesn't care!" I said. It is the beginning of those big decisions over what's important, what's not and who it's all really about. I had been relieved when we had likewise decided to stay put in our cozy little place, to give little Eli a crib in the corner of our room, a drawer in our dresser, not to try to move to a bigger place just so we could show off our baby's room to others, to ourselves, to a baby who could barely see and couldn't make out color for a while at least. It worked out great.

The best advice I ever got was from my first pediatrician, fabulous Dr. Yaker. When I beseeched him to tell me how best to sift through all the overwhelming amount of contradicting opinions on parenting I was getting he said, "You're going to do it your way, and that's going to be the right way." Really, it's all you can do. He was right. It has saved me a lot of time reading manuals on what other people think and do (though I do that on occasion, in a panic) or on asking never-ending numbers of questions from others who may or may not think like I do, whose advice I'd be hard-pressed to follow if I go with my gut as I'm likely to do. As, in the end, we all do.

As I walked out of school this morning, another mother was coming in, heading to chaperone a field trip for the 2nd grade to Historic Richmond Town in the pouring rain. "Ooh...I'm sorry!" I said. "Wait, I have something for you!" I handed her a gold star and offered up my great hope that it would help the sun shine, make her duty a little less dreary.

"You made my day!" she said.

Shortly thereafter I offered up a gold star to a crying child and his exhausted mother who had been up all night caring for him. She had joked with him that she was going to nod off at work from lack of sleep. He took her star so he could have two and she let him. I gave her another one. She needed it. Loving children is 24/7, it is hard under any circumstances, harder still when we don't take a gold star for ourselves or award them freely, wholeheartedly and often to our children, just for trying.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


I conducted a poll on a website for moms, CafeMom, posing the question, "How many moms think they deserve a gold star, just for trying?"

I gave four possible responses:

1. "Definitely! The biggest one you have!"

2. "Yes, please?!"

3. "Give it to somebody who deserves it more...well, OK."


4. "No."

I should be happy with the responses. Just over half, 51%, of the 29 respondees chose Definitely! The biggest one you have! That is great and it certainly jives with what I've seen. So many strangers take the star with a smile and a thank you, surprising me still that they don't even ask why, for what, they just know they deserve it, want it,need it,love it.

Another 31% of respondents answered "Yes, please?!" Also great. A little more tentative in their self love, trepidatious of their deserving, but still willing and able to receive a star. Cool. Even the 6% who responded in martyr form, "Give it to somebody who deserves it more...well, OK," were obviously willing to take it after a weak fight. I'm slightly worried about them, but not so much.

It is the 10% who feel totally undeserving, that even in private would answer a straight up "No," that sadden me. Those are the people my project cannot reach, I think.

I thought, briefly, that these might be the same women that go on to the Cafe Moms site or others to reach out to virtual strangers with entreaties such as "Bawling my eyes out, really need someone to talk to!" or "Feeling really depressed and ugly,what can I do for a change?" or "Have 2 lose weight." But then I thought better, reasoned that I was probably wrong. At least these women are crying out,trying to get help,looking for a way out of their depression, their dilemmas. Likely, these 10%, these who feel totally undeserving, are quietly reading about others' problems, maybe relating but keeping mum, silently seething. It is not good.

I told a friend about my project today and he listened, not saying much. Then, he offered up, "Maybe you should color code it." When I looked at him questioningly, he explained, "You know, like some people should get black stars..."

I told him he was not alone, that I had found others who thought first of the people who don't deserve a gold star, who instead deserve a bit of bad blood, a black star or an angry face or a frown. I proffered up my philosophy on the gold star, how I felt that if everybody, early on and throughout their life, was able to get recognition for trying, to get acknowledged, maybe we wouldn't have so many angry people. As I spoke I looked at him and saw the skepticism in his eyes. With a laugh, I began to defend myself and the ideas expressed in my blog, "I bet you think my blog would seem..." as I struggled for a word, he offered up his own: "Judgmental?"

Hmmm. "I was thinking I was trying not to be judgmental, actually," I said. "I think everybody deserves one." After that, the conversation was over. I doubt he'll read my blog. But the comment made me think. Who is judging who? Could it be that the 10% who don't even think they deserve a gold star are the most judgmental, surely of themselves and, likely, of others? Isn't it true that if we allow ourselves to feel worthy and deserving we are more likely to extend the same consideration to others? People who cut themselves off from receiving have probably, in their bitterness, cut themselves off from giving as well, or they give angrily, because they feel they have to even whilst their resentment mounts. It is a vicious cycle.

I said I'm not idealistic, but I lied. I try to erase the shoulds, but really just the negative ones. I think everyone should get a gold star, that everyone deserves it, that the idea, brought to its greatest end, could actually turn people around. I am that naive.

I am so magnanimous in my belief that I even feel a bit guilty about giving the bird to the jerk in the black car who tried to run me over yesterday as I crossed with the walk sign, a sign that gave me rights that he, in his big hurry, didn't give a shit about. I flipped him off as he sped away, his white wall tires skidding mere inches from the feet I had slowed to teach him a valuable lesson. But, really, it should have been a gold star I held up, high in the air for him to see, to learn from, to know that somebody cared. If he felt more deserving, he probably wouldn't be such a dick. I do believe that, really, but sometimes it's hard to practice what you preach. Mr. In A Hurry, if you're reading, big gold star for you!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Let Them Play!

I hate to point fingers, but it saddens me deeply that we as Park Slope Parents are too guilt-ridden with our own productivity to let our children play, to teach them how.

My son's sweet pre-school teacher last year looked deeply stressed as she sat across from me at the little round table, our adult derrieres hanging over the sides of tiny plastic chairs, to deliver a report on four-year-old Oscar.

"I just want you to know," she said, biting her fingernails tensely, "that we are just looking at social skills and play, not academics." It was clear she figured a good offense was the best defense, she'd come out with it as to head off the hepped up, grade-focused parents right at the first pass. I was happy, others not so much.

I loved the cute school, where the kids went to each other's houses for "home visits," watched chickens hatch out of eggs in incubators and went swimming and to see plays and puppet shows. These things, I thought, were exactly age appropriate. They learned to play with one another, they learned the routine of going to the same place every day without their parents, they began to learn how to learn. Letters and numbers were introduced, but not hammered home so as to worry their wee brains. It was perfect. But some people weren't satisfied: their children weren't learning to read or write or do math. Weren't they falling behind?!? One woman, an editor, told me proudly that her son, who couldn't read yet, was "well past picture books..." In pre-school, I always thought? Isn't there plenty of time for that?

The pressure that we put on our kids is only a symptom of the pressure we put on ourselves. I gave out a gold star this rainy Spring morning to a woman, a Park Slope mom, who said she recently felt like putting on her Facebook status: "I feel bitter, jealous and fat..."

She is an accomplished person, an Ivy League graduate, a published writer. But it is not enough. She doesn't have a new book deal and the thrill of getting the first one published has worn thin. She acknowledged that her perspective is often glass-half-empty, but that is what we're all primed for, isn't it? Even though we are so lucky, us Park Slope Housewives (a moniker my lovely friend Dave uses often in mocking), we judge ourselves harshly for all that we're not doing. It starts early nowadays, in pre-school, that playing is not enough, only productivity need be rewarded. If Oprah is up and down like a yo yo, what of the rest of us? How much more productive could she be? It tells us something, the drug addictions and weight fluctuations of the rich and famous, Angelina Jolie and Madonna's constant acquisition of new babies: we don't know how to be happy at play.

Retirees are often at a loss, for they feel useless after a long productive career that distracted them from looking at themselves, at what they really enjoy or at what really makes them feel good. I chatted about this idea yesterday with a lovely man, a local building manager and sometime leader of male consciousness-building workshops, who works hard to connect with others, with himself, even though he admits that doing so is scary.

He gratefully accepted his big gold star for trying with a huge smile. "Oh my, I got a star today, how awesome!" he said. I saw him later coming toward me on 7th Ave., his gold star glittering on his hand in the afternoon sun. "The star has made me happy all day," he said. "I feel like I'm five again!" Hopefully, our kids will be able to look back on five in the same way we can if we're lucky, as a happy, carefree, fully unproductive time, a time when we weren't judged on skills, just on smiles, and for trying.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

On Language

I woke up sometime in the 4:00 hour, ideas flying, in rhyme, in my head. Yesterday's conversations and inspirations assured me somehow that I am right, that I have something worthy to write. Homophones such as these are often metaphors, I think, defining meaning in a more magical, delicious way. The sea allows you to really see. You can't just be if you're a busy bee. Language is pretty clever.

Still, though, I often think that words don't matter, that melodies and gestures are more meaningful to impart true emotion and feeling. I looked out the window of the cafe this morning and saw a conversation in sign language. It was beautiful. Whatever they were saying, it came from the heart. I saw someone sneeze on the subway once and her friend waited patiently for her to finish, then reached out to touch her, gazed in her eyes and mouthed and moved his fingers right in front of her face to sign in earnest, "God...bless...you!" It was a magical moment. For most of us hearing people, the post-sneeze sentiment is a throwaway, a breezy "gableshew" in passing if anything at all.

But the words that we do use say so much of our cultures. A friend has said he's sad in communicating with me sometimes that I cannot speak French. I can see, from the few phrases I know that it is more direct, more forceful. Voila! I wrote in my notebook this morning the idea that concepts in French can be offered up in one word instead of in many, less obfuscated than English. But no sooner did I put down my pen and unplug to tune in to the world, most specifically to gaining the attention of a precious 8-month-old girl and her wondrous wave, that I was proven wrong by an expert.

As on most days lately, when I write or think about something, I come upon just the right person to talk to, the person who has focused on the topic so much as to make it their job. The mother of the beautiful baby turned out to be a Frenchwoman and, as fate would have it, a translator.

When I floated my language theory to her, about the directness of French, she agreed that the French are definitely more direct, but offered that their language is actually less not more precise, at least in the number of words they use. "English is more specific in terms of naming objects," she said. An example was hard to conjure, for these days she is focused mostly on translating baby talk. At some point soon she will focus again on her work, on translating English into French for humanitarian NGOs.

Our serendipitous meeting did not escape me. When I told her of meeting an architect when my attentions were centered on perspective and buildings, a sex consultant when my thoughts turned to carnal pleasures, and, now, meeting her, a translator, when language was on my mind, her faith, like mine, was restored: "Ah, so there is a God..." she said. It was definitely a gold star moment.

We spoke of linguistics, an impractical, academic art. What does one do with a linguistics degree, I wondered. She thought about it and then offered up with a shrug that, "Maybe it's just one of those passions that doesn't really take you anywhere...Maybe they write books?!"

What she does know, from her one linguistics course in college, is that English is a mix of different origins whereas other European languages, like Spanish and Italian, come more directly from Latin and Greek. I laughed, thinking about this.

"In language, as in so many things, the English and the Americans manage to create something totally new and forcefeed it on the rest of the world," I said. In our hubris, we have made most people speak our language even on their own soil and, most certainly, on ours. Amazing.

A bit later, another woman piped up during a conversation I was having with the trusty, always "Awesome!" barrista and it turned out she was a preparer of test questions for would-be college- or graduate school-entrants for whom English is a second language. Being the preparer of questions is less complicated than giving the tests, she said. As it would be. "Some accents you can understand better than others," she said. "It's hard to be objective, and I was conflicted."

Still, though, the tests are developed and administered, leaving the subjective judgment up to the test giver. For the record, I always chose papers. At least there was honesty in knowing there was no exact right answer. Nothing is quite for sure, no matter how much we like to be assured. I scoff when people say we are open to all kinds in America. Of course we are. Opportunities abound, definitely more than in most countries. But let's be fair: others have to speak our language. We do not always care to look closely enough to hear in anything other than our own words.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Pleasure Is A Good Thing

It is an amazing thing that people, with just slight pressure on just the right point, will offer up their greatest hopes, dreams and desires to perfect strangers. In talking to so many people, I have discovered a scary truth: despite all we come up with to the contrary, all the elaborate ruses to justify ourselves, we all want the same thing: pleasure. How to get it, though. How not to feel guilty about it in our productivity-oriented society. Now there is the problem. Some people have given up trying. Some people haven't.

Yesterday, after my recharging cartwheels, I was ready to get back to the business of giving out gold stars. I sat at the bar at a great Middle Eastern restaurant in Fort Greene, the cool spring air coming in the open door, the potted palms reaching almost to the exposed rafters, and I wrote. And talked. And ate bacon-wrapped, date- covered almonds and falafel-coated fried artichokes with a glass of red wine. And wrote some more.

A woman came in who had spent an hour with Verizon to try to fix a problem so she could get her work done, to no avail. She was happy. She couldn't do her work and didn't have to feel guilty about it. She ordered a mimosa and sat, smiling as the sun shone on her from the skylight above, telling her tale of jobless woe, the many applications that had been rejected.

"I met someone, though, so my personal life is good," she told the owner behind the bar with a shrug. C'est la vie.

I had to pipe in. "That's all that really matters," I said.

We all agreed. But there was that pesky problem of how to make money...I threw out my concept of a utopian barter system, where we didn't all just have to sit around doing pointless tasks, waiting morbidly for a rich relative to die.

"We feel we're not on farmland," I said, looking around as if the elaborate construction of buildings and roads we'd set up had disappeared or could, "but we are. We need to get back to basics."

"I have nothing to barter," the girl said, pride wounded by the many rejections.

"Of course you do! You're totally upbeat and that is very valuable," I said. It was the perfect moment to pull out the gold star. She smiled bigger, very pleased, and placed the puffy star right on her cheek.

"I feel so special," she said, shrugging into a self hug.

She guessed, she said, she had her body. I laughed. Sex is one of the few things we do still barter in a capitalist society, and even that has become extremely monetized in so many ways.

The owner had stepped away momentarily and come back. "How did we get to talking about prostitution?" he asked, amazed at the turn. We explained that it was something she felt she could offer up in the new, better barter society. Without skipping a beat, he offered up his own fantasy: "I could be a porn star, I think that'd be great!"

We laughed. When I questioned him, was he really sure he would enjoy it, there is a lot of waiting around, he offered up an emphatic yes. He was sure. Every open conversation seems to come down to this, to sex, to pleasure. In the midst of economic crisis, it is the one thing people know for sure they can afford. It is natural, free in every sense if we are willing to open ourselves up to it.

This morning, as synchronicity would have it, I met a sex consultant whose given last name is Love. She is in the midst of writing a tounge-in-cheek sex manual in between gigs assisting expert sex gurus like Barbara Carrellas, the author of Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Century. She is living in Brooklyn and loving it, reaching out to people to help them understand how to find their way back to pleasure. She definitely deserved her gold star, took it graciously and recognized it exactly as it was intended, as a moment of connection that would stay with her throughout her day. Like good sex.

In an interview I watched on YouTube with Barbara Carrellas, whom Ms. Love loves and greatly admires, she offered up the concept we all sometimes forget: ecstasy doesn't come in a pill. "Forces of nature are moving through you, there is no goal," she said. "It is all about staying in the present moment and taking the journey."

She offered up that "Pleasure has been so dismissed, so denigrated, so put in to a place of shame in this culture. It is all about consciousness: are you really paying attention to what you're doing and where you are?" Are we? I think we have strayed too far. What's happening now is a necessary correction I like to say.

The New York Times wrote a story in the Style section recently about orgasmic meditation or OMing. I was surprised to see such a long, open story about sex in a major, one might argue The major mainstream publication. But we, all of us, are primed for the message. Our measures of pleasure have failed us and, even if they hadn't, we can surely no longer afford them.