Thursday, October 29, 2009

Entertaining Dad

As I make my way around New York with my visiting Dad, I am more aware than ever how hard people in this city try. My Dad, you see, grew up in New Jersey, came to Brooklyn to visit his grandmother in Bed-Stuy, doesn't have particularly fond memories. He can't believe I spend so much money to live in Brooklyn, can't imagine why I live in the often cold and rainy place he escaped for the near-constant sunny skies of Tucson, Arizona, why I walk far distances or take public transportation or why, when I drive my car, I can't pull up, easily, right in front of where we're going. Most of all, he can't understand why I don't watch TV, why I never even bought the equipment necessary to go digital.

I am forced, when my Dad is visiting, to defend my life. And, you know what? I can do a pretty good job. New York, to me, comes out smelling like a rose, even if my Dad can't always smell it through his cigar smoke.

Take yesterday. A grey rainy day, perfect for a museum. A few other people had the same idea. The line outside MOMA was probably three hours long, if we had to wait in it. But, as members, we sailed right through. My father far prefers the Met, but I am not a member and did not relish waiting in those rainy-day lines. My father reluctantly agreed to the "modern" museum. He says "modern" in only the most pejorative sense, I can never figure why. Smiling, he said, "It'll be fun. I'll laugh at it..."

He is a perfectionist my father, a man always striving to become a Master, in art, in golf, in everything. He is as hard on himself as he is on others. I try to engage him in the idea of appreciating his own and others' efforts, even those that might not be "masterful" in his eyes, but he just looks at me blankly. Like with the white-painted canvas on the wall at MOMA, he just can't see it.

He is not quiet about his feelings, my Dad. I come by my loud, opinionated ways quite honestly. At MOMA, it was downright humiliating. He would just start laughing, loudly, doubled over sometimes, at the more esoteric pieces, the ones he dubs "bullshit." As he scoffed openly on the Architecture and Design floor, a sweet security guard smiled in tacit agreement of his condemnation of a piece of fabric on the wall and consoled him.

"Go to the third and fourth floors," she suggested kindly, "you'll feel more relaxed then."

I was so grateful for her understanding. Of course, she got a gold star.

She took it, so thrilled. "You have brought a little sunshine to me on a rainy day, that makes my week, thank you!" she said.

I smiled. "No, thank you!" I said.

My Dad is enjoying watching the gold star giveaways, enjoying people's reactions to them. He is, like me, definitely a people person.

The security guard took it upon herself, then, to be our new tour guide, pointing out a chandelier made of plates and forks and cups and saucers. "I like that one," she said to my Dad, trying to point out something he might enjoy. He took her advice, walked over to it.

"Oh, yeah, that's cool," he said, 'cool' being his highest praise. Finally, one thing that slightly pleased him. The saving grace of the visit, though, was happening upon a painting by Andrew Wyeth, one of my Dad's favorite artists. It was in the hallway near the escalators, a skillfully drawn depiction of a grassy farmland with a woman laying on her side slightly left of center. It is indeed amazing. Gold star to Mr. Wyeth, to the curator of MOMA, for their help with my hosting duties.

We finally left, having seen at least a handful of things appealing to my Dad's old-school notion of art, tons more that he happily made fun of to the consternation of the mostly quiet demure Europeans surrounding us.

Outside, we found a cab easily, even in the rain, but I, in my New York impatience, made us get out and walk because of the fear of Midtown traffic jams. It seemed we might be sitting on 53rd St. forever. It turns out, as we got onto 5th Ave., that likely wouldn't have been true, but the cab driver was happy to take our $4 for that half-block ride and pick up other passengers. He does not get a gold star.

I wanted to take my Dad to lunch at Avra, the only really pretty restaurant I know of in Midtown, the only one with windows out onto the world, that also has really good food. It was a far, far longer walk than my Dad's non-walking knees and back could handle. I thought he might kill me. Luckily, there was a table open and he got a dry seat and some bread before too long.

Lunch was tasty and my Dad enjoyed staring at a table of young Turkish women. He is amazed at the many languages spoken here, at the many beautiful young women in New York. I didn't give them gold stars for being eye candy for my Dad, though I maybe should have. They did, after all, help to entertain.

After lunch, on the way to the train, we happened upon a cigar and pipe shop. My Dad is in heaven in the humidor as almost nowhere else, maybe the golf course. But he is not pretentious, doesn't know what's "good." He simply likes to smoke a fat cigar. A woman in the humidor was very knowledgeable, knew all the right things to ask for. My Dad was impressed.

"How do you know so much?" he asked her.

"I've been smoking cigars a long time..." she said. She was probably my age. I laughed, to myself. Not as long as my Dad, I thought.

One of the employees of the shop put me and my Dad at ease, made my Dad feel better about not knowing much, about just enjoying cigars, so much so I that I joked with him and slapped his arm, as I do often with friends without thinking. He looked at his arm, at me.

"You just touched me," he said, joking but deadpan.

"Sorry!" I said. "Now I'll have to give you something." I whipped out a gold star.

Looking around a bit more, my Dad finally settled on a cigar, some unknown name.

"Good one," our new friend said. "That's a lot of cigar for the money. Good value."

"My Dad is all about value," I said, smiling.

Good times. Sometimes, it takes a village. The villagers, for their efforts, should get gold stars. I'm sure there will be plenty more opportunities today.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Wishing We Could All Be Winners

I hate contests. It's a problem. Life, as it turns out, is a contest. Competition is something we face at every turn. But at least most of the time, it is a little less obvious when you are a loser.

I made a pie for the pie contest at the Fall Festival at the kids' school. I couldn't decide between pumpkin or pecan, so I made a pumpkin pecan. It sounded really yummy, made with sour cream and corn syrup and plenty of butter and lard for the crust. Perfect for a crisp fall day. I bake a lot for the school bake sales, cookies and breads and cakes I can usually be found carrying down my street, toward the school. For the festival, I also made a refrigerator roll, a delicious concoction of chocolate wafers and whipped cream that makes me (and plenty of others I've encountered) nostalgic for my youth.

I had thought the contest would be judged by eaters, by the common man, like the chili contest, but no. There was a Supreme Judge, the owner of a local bakery, Sweet Melissa's. It was very official, with Melissa taking a small slice of each pie. I kept running over from the bake sale where I was working, watching regular folks decide on their own what was best, (the owl cupcakes were a runaway favorite!) to check out her progress. Had she tasted mine? I had never made it before. I was curious if it was good, was dying to try it. That's why I had made it: it sounded good to me.

Finally, the announcement was made. I missed all but the winning pie, a double-crusted apple. I didn't even know there was second, third and honorable mention until later. Oh well, I thought, I didn't win. I raced over to the table, though, to get a piece of my own pie. The hubby wanted one too. So, apparently, did a lot of people. Mine was one of the first to go and I have to say I thought it was darn good. But was that what mattered to people? No.

They didn't ask if my pie was good, if they might enjoy it, they just wanted to know if it had won.

There was even a rumor spread that I had placed third, though that was really a chocolate pecan with bourbon. Maybe that's what made my pie sell well...

As I went to retreive my pie plate at the end of the day, licking bits of buttery crust and filling from the bottom fiendishly, a fellow parent at the school looked at me, smiling: "Was it a winning pie?"

I smiled back. "No," I said, "it was a loser. But it was really good!"

It reminded me so much of school, like of the time a journalism professor at Medill gave us all A's when we turned in an assignment and one girl in particular was miffed.

"I would have gone out, not worked so hard if I knew we were all getting A's," she'd said. Nice. The assignment, though I can't remember it exactly, had been really interesting, thought provoking. I remember being excited when I finished it, just before I went out. The professor had intended that, realized that just by doing it, we had learned what he hoped to teach. We were all winners. We all got gold stars, just for trying. I loved it, loved the professor for his bravery. But it usually, sadly, doesn't work that way. People don't expect that, don't particularly like it. Our society is predicated on the concept that not everyone can always win.

It's why I hate sports. I hate winning, because I feel bad for the losers, but I hate losing, because then everybody on my team is bummed we lost. It's a no-win situation, for me.

I realized as I walked off with my loser-pie pie plate that the reason I bake is to please people. I enjoy watching people enjoy the food I make. That is why I love standing behind the bake sale table. I sell someone a little bit of joy and watch them partake of it. It makes me happy. No offense to Melissa, but I don't really care what she thinks. She is just one woman. I don't read reviews, usually, for this reason, unless I have a long history with a reviewer so I know enough to trust that their opinion somewhat resembles what I myself might think.

I began to realize that the pie contest was an easy metaphor for my writing. I love writing because I hope, in doing so, to reach people with a resonant message like so many writers have reached me. But, as a professional writer, you are basically competing in a contest every time you submit something, asking that an editor might like your piece better than the countless hundreds of other writers who are also submitting.

It is why I started a blog. It is hard to build up your confidence to face the countless rejections inevitable in submitting work without first having a little success, even a few readers who enjoy one's words. I had to start doing what I wanted to do without the harsh judgment of a contest in order for my own true voice to emerge. I'm not sure, though, that I'll ever get used to submitting my work to the scrutiny of a winner/loser setup. I know, going forward, that I can just place my baked goods on the bake sale table and let the "judges" be the people who decide whether they want to buy it or not rather than submit to a contest. But, with my writing, if I ever plan to publish, to gain a wider audience, I have to submit myself to judgment, to many judges' individual opinions, ones I might not even agree with. I know, I know, you're saying, "That's life, baby. That's life."

I wish it wasn't that way. I wish everyone could get a gold star just for trying.

There was a woman working at the dressing room at Daffy's yesterday who, kindly, brought my aging, complaining father a stool so he could sit down as I tried on clothes. He laughed, suggesting to her, suggesting to me, that she should get a gold star.

She sighed. "I wish," she said. Suddenly, a quick reach into my bag, and her wish was fulfilled. Voila, it was that easy. Aaah. I wish it was always that easy.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Open Possibilities

A rainy Saturday. What to do? It would have been easy enough to let the kids play computer all day, to stay inside. But, following as it did a "sick day," I had cabin fever. I decided, instead, to drag my family into the city for a little culture, for a visit to The New Museum, a hip modern museum on the Bowery in Manhattan that we joined excitedly nearly a year ago and have visited exactly once.

The web site showed they had a cool new sculpture exhibit that took over three whole floors by an artist, Urs Fischer, who did over-the-top things like build houses out of bread and made an enormous tongue that jutted straight out, as if exploding, from the wall. I knew these things would appeal to my kids.

"Cool!" they said when I told them where we were going, the kinds of things we might see. Phew. Museums, ones for adults as well as kids, are not always an easy sell.

We drove in as a result of our laziness and the fact that the city has seen fit to shut down the F train on the weekends for a while. Necessary, I guess, but not very nice. I must say, though, that it always feels decadent to drive into the city, to cruise through the throngs ensconced in a private, climate-controlled, music-filled environment that takes you exactly where you want to go. Well, not exactly. But finding parking means you will be forced to explore areas you might not otherwise, to see streets you would never walk down, find things, like the amazing old Marble Cemetery we came upon on 2nd St. with the unbelievable old gnarled trees or the little hidden garden on the corner of 3rd Ave. and Houston, an oasis with a turtle- and coi-filled pond just steps away from the hustle and bustle of crowds. We decided to wait to hit the Dumpling Festival happening across Houston until after the museum.

We arrived to find the Urs Fischer exhibit was still being installed, that there was only one floor, a teaser of what was to come. It was, indeed, very cool. One piece featured a cut-off subway bench and a large piece of luggage, both attached to the wall, and a pink frosted cake with snails eating it hovering, hard to tell how, in the middle of the two. The kids were entranced by how it hung.

"Definitely, it's a magnet," Oscar proclaimed. He has impressed us before with his artistic eye. At MOMA, at 3, he had looked at a piece in the regular collection featuring a stool with a rake dangling overhead and shook his head. "I don't get it..." he said, as if everything else in the museum made sense except this shlock. He sounded like my Dad, an artist himself, always the critic, condemning nearly everything except Rembrandt, the Master.

We were done more quickly than we wanted to be, sad to only see the first few pieces of what promises to be an amazing exhibit. Standing outside, in the rain, waiting for the others to use the bathroom, Oscar pointed at a metal stand with a buzzer on it. "What's that for?" he asked.

I looked at it, looked around. We were standing in front of the museum's office door, the door for deliveries.

"This is where the artists deliver their work," I said.

Oscar looked pensive. "Well," he said after a moment. "If making websites doesn't work out for me and Eli, then I'm going to be a camp counselor." I waited. This had to have something to do with the delivery buzzer. Then, he got there. "And if that doesn't work out, I'm going to be an artist."

I smiled. "Cool," I said. "Actually, you could easily be all three. Web designing is definitely artistic, and you could be a camp counselor in the summer!"

He nodded. Sure. It was a plan. Or maybe not. Maybe he would be something else entirely. As the rest of our party returned and we headed back to the car (the dumplings having all been sold, despite the rain), he began to come up with new career choices as he looked around. Nearly everything was a possibility.

"I could be a filler person," he said, as we passed a gas station.

"Officially, that is called a 'gas station attendant," I said, avoiding any inclination I might have had to pass judgment.

We passed a storefront for the Hari Krishna and another that housed the local chapter of Hell's Angels, but, luckily, Oscar didn't notice either one. Not that I will have any say what he does, who he becomes, but...some life choices just seem harder than others.

I wanted to give Oscar a gold star for his openness, for thinking early and often about what might fulfill him in his life. I didn't have any on me, though, and, anyway, since the day he covered his whole shirt with them and they ended up coming off and getting stuck on everything, he refuses them. I gave him a kiss instead and my honest opinion:

"You can be anything you want to be," I said.

Friday, October 23, 2009

On Books

I heard not-right sounds coming from upstairs this morning as I typed away, finishing a chapter for my writing workshop. Uh oh. It was more than a mother's instinct. It was loudly and clearly the ick, a.k.a the stomach virus, which has mercifully not reared its ugly head in our house for quite some time, after living with us for far too long.

I ran up, offering Eli, the sufferer, sympathy and a bucket, too late. Luckily I had nothing pressing on the books today. For once, I wasn't scrambling to figure how I could pretend he wasn't sick or to press someone else into service. It was a cool fall morning, I myself had woken up way too early as usual, and I was almost relishing the idea of a sick day. Eli cooperated, feeling chipper by sun-up. Sick days with a really sad child, in pain, are not so sweet.

As it was, the two of us waved goodbye to everyone else and happily curled up on the couch, I to fold laundry and Eli to dig in to the Paddington Bear series we had found at a stoop sale.

"I love you Mommy," he said, putting his little warm head on my shoulder. Bliss in between trips to the bathroom. Lovely.

I peaked over his shoulder, trying to read a few lines, to remember why I had loved Paddington so much. Eli's running commentary reminded me.

"He is so cute! I wish we had a Paddington!" he said. "Look at his hat, he is so funny! And he loves geography, just like me!"

I smiled. I remembered all but the loving geography bit. I had felt the same way. A sketch of the little girl holding Paddington's hand was heart-melting, so sweet. We all need a sweet, funny, loyal little bear around, don't we?

"Look, I found a picture!" Eli said. In my fog of my own memories, seeing the 70s shot, I was confused. Could that be my 7th birthday party photo? Then, I remembered! It was my friend's who had sold us the series from the books that had sat since her youth in her parents' basement! There she was, on the floor, presiding over her party, seemingly in said basement. She will remember when I give it to her.

The picture-as-bookmark reminded me of a time, years ago, when I was living in Chicago. I had frequented a local library to feed my voracious appetite on a small salary. I was in the M's, looking through W. Somerset Maugham's works, trying to remember what I had and hadn't read of my favorite, most prolific author. I picked up a title, can't remember which, and something fell out. It was a picture of my niece. I laughed. I guessed I had read it, then.

With or without pictures in them, books mark a time and a place in our minds. I find so many on the street in Brooklyn or buy them cheap at stoop sales. I even occasionally pay full price. I want to support writers and the publishing world at large, after all. I have a wall of book shelves that is filled to capacity and books lining dressers, windowsills, any spare nook and cranny. I pick up old favorites sometimes, or find one I meant to read but never got to. And, sometimes, as I write my own words, I just stare at my books, inspired by the idea that a writer's ideas can be so powerful as to shape the way you think, to make you feel better or, at least, understood.

I love seeing my children discover worlds beyond theirs through words on a page. I've never been to Israel, but I could imagine it as a child reading Gloria Goldreich's Lori. I remember how sad I was to finish that book, to realize it was just a brief glimpse into another life not my own. It is important to travel, too, to three-dimensionalize places in our minds, but relating to characters in books, as you sit alone, unjudged, is like nothing else.

I know the publishing world is in a pinch, that people aren't buying books like they used to, that electronic gadgets are replacing paper very quickly. But gold stars to all those who are trying to keep reading alive, to retain, for posterity, the possibility that you can know anything, anyone, that you can know yourself, just sitting, sick, on your own couch.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

To Children and Child-Like Fantasy

I walked into Parco this morning with a friend I had promised to buy coffee for, because she had no cash. But when I opened my purse, there were only two measly dollars, not even enough for my own lame herbal tea.

"Uh oh," I said, showing her the vast emptiness where dollars should have been. We laughed. I was just about to leave and get cash when a lovely woman who works at the Y, in front of me in line, offered to float me.

"I know where to find you..." she said, knowing I'd be in her establishment later.

Nice. If she hadn't been there, I could probably have convinced the barrista to spot us until the next time. See, this is why I love being a regular. Gold stars were proffered all around, to my Y friend, to the friend I'd invited, my treat, with no means, and to the barrista, who waited while we figured out how to pay him.

As my friend and I sat, in the window, her star caught the eye of a little boy, who had eagerly been listening to our conversation while waiting for his mom. As she got her coffee and they began to walk out, he looked right at my friend.

"I like your star..." he said.

It seemed the perfect opportunity. "Do you want one?" I said.

He looked at his mom, like all good boys do when strangers offer them something.

"Go ahead..." she said, smiling, excited for him.

I gave one to him and, of course, to the mom. Nice early boldness, good effort, on both of their parts.

There must have been something in the air today, some centrifugal pull tugging the gold stars toward children. During my afternoon break, sipping a Red Cappuccino (an herbal tea masquerading as coffee)made for me special by the sweet, sympathetic barrista at Naidre's, two men walked in with some lively little girls. I immediately loved these girls. They were probably 5 or 6, and they were so happy and full of life, running around the small cafe tables without a care. The one stopped the other, made her pay attention as she tried to teach her the oft-complex hand maneuvers that go along with "Miss Mary Mack...," the chant that has bested the odds and held on through the many decades since I was their age.

I wanted to play too. I tried, but wasn't very good. The girls ran off, out the door, back in again.

"Wait, girls, I have something for you," I said.

They stood, waiting eagerly, as I pulled out some stars.

"Stickers?" the little teacher with the flying curls asked. "Cool!" She ran off to show her Dad, still waiting at the counter. She came back with the star in the middle of her forehead, like an Indian bindi.

"My Dad said I should put it there," she told me, and was off like a shot, again.

I gave a star to the other little girl's younger sister, a mere babe in her father's arms. He placed it on her and she and I gazed at each other for a while. I'm not sure how she felt about the star. Confused, perhaps. Like most things, it probably didn't yet have meaning for her.

Flying Curls' Dad followed shortly with his food, packed up to go. He was intrigued by the stars. I gave him one and he placed it, with a gracious "Thanks!" directly in the middle of his forehead.

"So, you're a writer? That's great! I did about four paragraphs of writing recently," he said.

"Why, what were you writing?" I asked.

"Well, you know Californication?"

Only my favorite show on television, the best-written one, I think, by far. He agreed. Like me, it had inspired him, the purity of it, the freedom with which David Duchovny's character, a writer, a playboy, talks and acts, even when it's totally against the rules, against his own and others' better judgment. It feels real, like the hyper-reality of a really smart person, what they would do if they could and the ramifications of doing so.

"If everyone could write like that..." I said.

"Yeah, I'd love to write," he said. He handed me his card. It turns out, in his real world, he is a photographer. But why not be writer and photographer both? Creativity is creativity, it can take so many different forms.

We said goodbye then, and he walked off to find Flying Curls, but then popped back in to add a comment, to mention another of his favorite writers, Miranda July. I had never heard of her.

He was shocked. "You've never heard of her? She's a badass performance artist/writer and you remind me of her..." With a wave, he was gone.

I smiled. Cool. I love being compared to a badass.

I looked up Ms. July later, after my new photographer friend sent me a photo of himself with his gold star on his forehead, and I asked him to remind me of her name. I liked her style from what I could tell. She did, indeed, seem like a badass. I particularly like one quote from her book of stories, "No One Belongs Here More Than You."

It says: "What a terrible mistake to let go of something wonderful for something real." Nice. Delusional, I see, just like me. See, fantasy shouldn't just be for children.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Blogger Therapy

I seem to have little advice for people recently about their relationships. Not that I'm a therapist, I'm a writer, just for the record. But the two do seem to go hand in hand the way I do it, the way I live and thrive. It is perfect. I don't need to go back to school or get a degree to do what I do. It is a new designation: the Blogger Therapist. It sounds more modern than Armchair Therapist.

But my well seems to have run dry. The best I can muster when friends tell me of difficulties with boyfriends/girlfriends/spouses is to nod my head in sympathy.

"Relationships are hard..." I say. I think all the listening and talking I've done, such an amount, Eli tells me, that I, not the GERD, caused myself to go hoarse, has pointed out the hard work inherent in making any relationship work, in making really anything work. I'll say it outright: Yes, you have to try.

I gave a gold star the other day to a friend who has been with her girlfriend for a year, a recent record. She apprises me of their status when I see her. They moved in together, then her girlfriend moved out, then, as of the present apprisal, she has moved back in, this time seeming to make a fuller commitment to the arrangement. Cool. Gold star for efforts expended, for working on it.

When I told my friend I had a blog about the gold stars, about relationships and efforts, she took out her girlfriend's card and, smiling, crossed out her information, replacing it with her own.

I laughed. "Well, you're officially a couple now: you've subsumed her identity..."

"That's right," she said.

Of course, it was a joke. But there is some aspect of ourself we have to give up in order for the greater good of making a relationship work. If everyone just thought exactly about themself, it would be a rare coupling that would survive. That's the hard part. That's the part that doesn't necessarily come naturally, that stopping and thinking about what we say or do before simply reacting how exactly we might feel like reacting. I am very bad at this. Ask my husband...

I have a wonderful theory that he reminds me of often, that we should all be able to fully express ourselves all the time. And I do believe in personal expression. But, like parenting, free expression takes precision, it has to be used smartly, wisely, not in absolutely every case of expression, especially if you're someone who expresses a lot. You are bound to go awry if you're constantly expressing, it's just the odds of it.

A friend of mine laughed when I said out loud what I was thinking to a neighbor once and she looked at me, offended. I hadn't meant to offend. I just hadn't played out the scenario in my head. I spoke too soon. My friend looked at me and, straight up, told me, "that's why all your neighbors hate you..."

Wow. I have thought of this often and I suppose many of my neighbors might in fact hate me. More likely, 'cause hate takes a lot of effort, if they have been offended at something I've said, some Blogger Therapy I've offered unsolicited, they'd probably just rather avoid me. I'm trying to offend less, which means I spend more time in front of my computer, less time with others. I have not mastered the art of limiting my self-expression while still maintaining high levels of free-association, which I am a big fan of.

Take an incident at a party the other day. I walked out onto my friend's crowded deck to get a beer from their keg (I never miss a keg party, never have been able to resist) and I smelled something divine as I leaned in to kiss a guy I've met a few times before with the host and hostess.

"Ummm..." I said. "Are you wearing cologne? It's awesome!" At first, I ignored the twitters from the guys around me. I went on. "You know, I don't know why more guys I know don't wear cologne, I love it..."

Now, the five or so guys surrounding the cologne-wearer in question had begun to full-on belly laugh and the cologne wearer to blush. Wow. Maybe it was the keg, but I was right back in college, drunk boys, albeit not all frat boys, laughing at something I'd said fully in earnest, after a few too many beers. Without a second thought, I put up my hand, put an end to the seemingly awkward conversational topic, and moved inside, without even a refill.

My husband came in to reassure me that I had not offended, but hadn't I? Apparently, people get embarrassed about being singled out for their cologne, even if it's offered with fully positive intent.

Another party-goer and I, chatting about the incident, connected over what cologne had meant to us as teenage girls, memories of Drakkar Noir and Polo that have, over time, become inextricably linked to our sexual awakening. As I spoke, it occurred to me. Oops. That's why mention of cologne might be awkward...maybe it is now seen as an overtly sexual or at least trying-to-attract trait men are supposed to pretend not to feel? Gold star to the wearer, then, for his boldness. I always reward boldness. And I'll give myself and anyone else I see doing it a gold star for giving compliments, whatever the price.

As I read earlier today in Dorothy Allison's brave "Two or Three Things I Know for Sure," our beauty can only come when we appreciate the beauty of others. Or, as it turns out, their yummy smell.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Playing Your Own Role

Headed to the gym this morning, I stood on the corner and felt the deep warmth of the sun on my shoulders, a feeling that had been gone for days, was likely to be gone again, soon, for a while. It was no time to go inside. The park seemed a far better option, so I turned on my heel and headed away from the weight machines toward trees and water.

For a Monday morning, I felt pretty centered. It was others in my household who had stressful days ahead of them, and I had to be the rock, the supporter. I was happy to play the role. Sometimes playing something makes that who you are. You can't really be good in a role unless you are being true. That is what makes acting so hard. I had a conversation about this with a woman, a local store owner, who is an actress but hadn't acted in years, never, she said, as an older woman.

"I didn't know how to play an older woman, I feel 20," she said.

I laughed. "I think you always feel 20 or younger, maybe 12, and that's why those actors who play old people who act like what they think old people are like, what we all expect them to be like, are so bad, so not real. You have no choice but to be who you are..."

She nodded, not wholly convinced. Maybe there was some universal bit of being older she hadn't captured, but I can't imagine what if she was playing a real-life older woman, if she was capturing what she herself felt.

As I walked into the park, I ran into a woman I met years ago, when both our older boys were just toddlers. We see each other occasionally, say hi in passing. Today, no kids in tow, a little more time on our hands, we stopped, remarking on the beauty of the day, the necessity of getting into the park before it was too late. She had been on a light jog, she said, and was just recovering.

"What are you up to these days?" I asked trepidatiously. It's actually none of my business.

She thought for a second, then answered. "My younger one is in school now, three days a week, so...I'm starting to get some time back. I'm starting with the physical..."

It was mom shorthand, speaking about what you "start" with when your youngest heads to school, how you'll begin to get back to yourself, to who you are outside of being so-and-so's Mom. I nodded in acknowledgment, in very personal understanding.

"I know exactly...That was me a couple of years ago, when my youngest started school and I quit my job. That's where I started too. All of a sudden I realized that excercise, at our age, is no longer optional."

"I know," she said,"it's not like you're in pain from having done anything..."

I nodded. "I know, I'm in pain if I've done nothing, I feel great if I've done something, I can actually get out of bed without creakiness. It's why I do something, go to the gym, walk, yoga, almost every day now. And," I added, pointing to my head, "this seems to follow."

She nodded. This seemed a perfect time to pull out a gold star. She thanked me and, as she placed it on herself, she looked up. "I don't know how it's going to work, but I'm trying..."

I laughed. "That's what the gold star is for, just for trying."

We parted then, each to our separate efforts. I went on into the park, into the deepest recesses of the wooded paths, where I love to wander. I would say "to get lost" but I so rarely loose sight of where I am anymore, I've traversed these paths so many times.

Telling someone recently about my joy in moving through these urban woods, sometimes running around the log-lined herky jerky trails like an obstacle course, I was met with sheer panic.

"What? Do you go there in the afternoon?" a man I know from the neighborhood asked.

"Yes...why?" I said, knowing likely what he would say. I know the fears that abound about anyone, but especially a woman, alone in the woods. I made a friend not long ago based almost solely on her hilarious response to the idea of jogging.

"Jogging?" she said, bugging out her eyes, nodding her head in a vehement non-verbal no. "When I think of jogging, I picture the evening news, where whenever they talk about a jogger they next pan to a shoe in the woods...I'm not ever jogging."

That image is almost always with me when I jog in the woods, I laugh about it. But I have recently decided to do it anyway. I don't watch the news. I don't see the lone shoe left behind. I don't, actually, think it happens often, which is why it makes it to the news. If it were common, like car accidents, it would become routine. It wouldn't make good TV, now would it? Anyway, as told my would-be protector, the benefits I get feeling totally immersed in nature right here in Brooklyn far outweighs the risks.

I felt a bit like my mom, always a fearful flyer, getting boldly, spitefully on a plane after 9-11 as a "take that!" to would-be terrorists. I would not be cowed as I had been for so long. It was part of the new less fearful me, the next stage after the physical strength for me, the stage I felt was necessary to set an example for my kids, to help them be courageous.

As I walked around the paths, I saw mostly other women, like me, trying to find a bit of peace. I did come upon a young couple, clothed, the girl straddling the boy, both of them laughing as I passed.

"Rape!" he yelped, joking, after I was beyond them. I laughed quietly, to myself. I didn't turn around though I was tempted, to go back and give them gold stars, just for being young and impetuous, for not being the rapists I was warned against. But I thought better of it. I went about my business, the business of my own life, and I left them to theirs.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

I Am Who I Am

I am often accused of making mountains out of molehills, of making too much of things. It is probably true of me, but I no longer feel the need to apologize for it. It is who I am, it is what makes me me. I have embraced it, created a blog so that others, if they so choose, can see the way I go from small to big, how exactly I reach the mountain from the molehill.

It begs the question, though, when others accuse us of thinking about things in a way they might not understand, that they abhor even, but that we like in ourselves, what to do. It is hard to explain to others why we finally, late in life, are beginning to accept our defining traits, appreciate them even.

The problem is, we want others to see us positively, to appreciate us, to want to know who we really are. Though it's not always possible, it is certainly something to strive for.

Yesterday morning I spent some time with my friend, the school librarian, looking for library supplies but also chatting about the trials and tribulations of being who we are. We are enmeshed in one another's lives only through storytelling, which allows us the distance sometimes lost when meshing more completely with friends. It is great. I owe her a gold star nearly every day.

In the library, I did in fact give a gold star I owed, was reminded of it by a young teacher I had seen the day before wearing a full glittery party dress and heels, to teach. I had complimented her heartily, giggling at how great it was. She was a little bit of glammed-up Dorothy on an otherwise dreary day. I had told her she deserved a gold star, that I would get her one later 'cause I didn't have them on me. She reminded me of this.

"You definitely deserve it," I said as I placed a big gold star on her shirt. "Great dress, good for you for wearing what you feel like wearing, whatever makes you feel happy."

"Some days, if you're feeling down, you just need to dress up..." she said.

I couldn't agree more. My one friend, knowing I subscribe to this theory, is skeptical when she sees me all dressed up.

"You okay?" she'll say, leaning in as if there might be something I have to share. For the record, it's not always true. I always like to get dressed up, it's only sometimes that I really need to.

I headed, then, straight to the gym, eschewing a coffee shop as I am currently, sadly, steering clear of coffee. The GERD rears its ugly head...I walked in and handed my card through the window to a young trainer I had seen around, said hello to on occasion.

"Aaaah," he said, taking the card and smiling, "now I know your name...Stephanie Thompson." As he ran my card through the computer, he looked at the screen. "And I know your address too..." he added flirtily.

I laughed. "Uh oh. Am I in danger now? I'm a little scared..."

He laughed and buzzed me in, narrowing his eyes dangerously.

I went about my workout and, after a bit, the trainer walked through the weight room where I was busy on the Lats Pulldown, the machine I believe helps me fight against the inevitable pull of gravity.

"Oh, hey," he said casually, "happy belated birthday!"

At this, I threw back my head in laughter. "Wow. Is there anything you don't know about me now?" I said.

"Nope," he said, waving, back to the front desk.

A little stalkerish, granted, but funny. Very funny. It is, to me, the ultimate compliment, when people want to know about me, when they seek to get the information that will help them know me. And this guy was straightforward, honest in his interest. He could have looked at all my stats and not let on, like we all do all the time, googling who we are curious to know about in private...but he didn't. For that, for his boldness, I gave him a big gold star on my way out.

He was excited, had seen the stars on others at the gym. Now he was in the Gold Star club. He knew, about himself, that he was deserving, in this case, for wanting to know me.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Deserving It

Yoga, as usual, proved an inspiration, a reconnection to my body in a soulful way, a personal way, not like a look-inside-my-nose-with-a-rubber-hose kind of way. (See my last entry if that confuses you:) The greatest thing was that I got to wear my new clogs. As I walked in to the studio, I walked in behind another girl whose clogs, in black, looked suspiciously new. I was right. Within seconds, she came over to take a closer look at my brown ones.

"I have them in red and, now, black, I love them!" she said.

Other women weighed in on their own clog stories, their colors, when they bought theirs and where. It was hilarious. I had been afraid to buy them because they were trendy, but I suddenly understood the allure of wearing what everyone wore, something you actually loved and others loved too: it gave you an instantaneous connection. Duh, as my kids might say. Yoga and clogs have gone hand in hand since the 70s, which we are now fully entrenched in mimicking in so many ways, so it made sense.

"I love getting a group of women talking about shoes!" I said as we all sat across from one another on our rubber mats, excited and chatty where usually we were calm, if not silent at least whispering. We all laughed.

The teacher gave food for thought, as usual, with her stories, this month focused around the idea of Service. She talked a bit about what giving to others can do for you, about a man who stands outside the Park Slope Food Co-op giving out stickers with little sayings, a man she and her friends refer to as The Sticker Man. I made eye contact with my friend across the aisle.

"Like gold stars..." I mouthed, and we both smiled.

"You should meet him," my friend mouthed back. It's true. I might have to visit The Sticker Man, give him a gold star sticker. The giver sometimes does need to receive.

Today, I received a lot as I gave, it's the reason I gave, as usual. I get so much out of my interactions with people. Today, to get my fix, I wandered down 7th Ave., which, like Madison Ave., like any avenue filled with shops probably, offers many opportunities for interaction.

After a few false starts, some not-so-pleasant interactions I won't share 'cause I don't want to dwell, I hit pay dirt. Although the store I went in to didn't have the gloves I had gone back for, which always happens, every winter, with hats or gloves or something I think about and then miss out on, it did have a beautiful grey scarf, reasonable enough to buy. I wasn't going to miss out this time.

Wrapping the soft wool around my neck, seeing myself happily typing away in it this winter (as I am right now,) I said to the mirror and to the saleslady with a smile, "I'm going to get it. I deserve it!"

I was thinking as I said it that I didn't actually deserve it, that I've shopped too much for someone working without pay, except for the few dollars that are soon to run out from my 6-year-old boss/son.

The saleslady smiled. "That's right, you do deserve it! You do deserve good things!" she said. At first I thought it was just her sales pitch, but then, looking at the intent on her face, in her eyes as she spoke, I realized she really meant it. She went on.

"So many times, people only think they deserve the bad things, the terrible things that happen to them, like they happened because they've done something wrong," she said, shaking her head, getting upset at the notion.

Funny, I had just been having that thought to myself on my way to the store, about how scared I am of fulfilling my dreams, any of them really but, currently, mostly, my lifelong dream of writing a book. I had been thinking how, maybe, I don't deserve it. I knew exactly what she meant.

"I know!" I said, "Why are we all like that?"

She shrugged as if she didn't know but then gave a thought. "Well, I'm from Jamaica," she said, "and there is an old wives' tale that says, 'Chicken merry, hawk de near,' so that any time you are happy, you have to feel bad about it."

This time, we both shook our heads. "Crazy," I said, "but every culture has it, this feeling of being doomed if you feel good about something, feel happy. In Judaism, it's 'Poo, poo, poo...', shushing someone when they talk about something positive, like you're going to be punished for your hubris."

(Okay, okay, I don't think I actually used the word hubris, but it's my favorite word - even surpassing otorhinolaryngologist I think - and it fits, so there!)

We went on to discuss how sad this is, how mind-boggling, how we try not to do that to our children, how we try to listen to them and let them express themselves, figure out what really makes them happy and not make them feel bad about it. Will they be better off for it? Will they feel more deserving of good things? Better yet, are we really doing it? How can we honestly pull off helping our kids think feeling good is their due when we don't really believe it? It's a question I ask myself almost daily.

Either way, I got a great new scarf and made a new friend who shared my concerns over how hard we all are on ourselves and, hence, others, our children. It's too bad. We are all deserving of good things and should get them. Of course, I gave her a gold star, which she placed directly on her hand and held it out to see, beaming. It never fails to make me feel great to make someone's day or week, as so many people say the star does. Amazing. Such a little simple thing...

I scattered stars up and down 7th Ave. as I did my errands, finding it easy because of all the shopkeepers willing to engage in thought-provoking conversation, trying to be sunny despite the rain. One man, working behind the counter at the Ansonia Chemist got his for remarking on his luck, having had "two beautiful ladies walk in the store..." So cute, so well-delivered, so like my own Dad. I immediately reached for a gold star, giving one to him and the other "beautiful" lady, and his already bright face lit up brighter.

"Wow!" he said, "You ladies are probably too young, but they used to give us kids gold stars at school."

The other beauty and I laughed. "We got them," I said, "and they still give them..."

He went on with his memory. "I was a Mama's boy," he told us. Gesturing to himself, he said, "I'm a tough guy now, but back then...I used to run home when I got a gold star and show my Mom. She was so proud."

Well, as I said to the barrista at Parco this morning who made a woman laugh twice at the same joke, I certainly found my audience.

"You made my week," he said, staring at the star, the proud, happy kid clear in him.

And he made mine.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

On Being Forced

Yesterday, I was dressed and ready for my day before dropping the kids at school, instead of in my usual workout clothes. I was headed into the city for a doctor’s appointment. First, though, I ran in to get coffee to go and, even in line at Parco, I was forced, out of sheer appreciation for great conversation, to give out a gold star.

It started, the conversation, as it so often does, with a dog, a sort of scrawny, short-haired grey-and-white terrier that stood, shivering, outside. I laughed watching him.

“What an expressive dog, I mean, that tail!” I said to the guy who had walked up behind me, standing half in, half out of the doorway, in line. “I mean, it’s shivering and wagging at the same time, saying ‘I’m cold but I’m also happy.’ How awesome! Dogs are so much more expressive than humans…”

The stranger, forced to listen to me rant, smiled and nodded in agreement. “So true…”

Buoyed by his participation, I went on. “I wish people were that expressive, but I guess it would be a little scary if they were…a little overwhelming.”

“Oh, definitely,” he said, seemingly with me, not thinking I was crazy at all or, at least, not letting on.

“I guess maybe all dogs aren’t as expressive as this one, either. Maybe it’s just that only some of every species can be really expressive…”

“It’s true,” he said, “and some species are just generally more expressive than others.”

We both paused, in thought. Fish? Actually, thinking of the one in our fish bowl, that lasted about a week, it did seem pretty outgoing and spunky, not at all, excuse the pun, like a dead fish, like some can be even when still alive. Cats the same, they seem to go either way. Dogs usually are pretty expressive, although some breeds, some particular dogs, fall outside the norm.

“You know,” my new friend said, “The octopus is apparently very smart and I read where this scientist decided to study sound and did this experiment where an octopus actually played the keyboards.”

“Are you serious?” I said, eyes bugged in amazement. I knew they could open a jar…but play the piano? Cool! I love science. I used to think it was a particular thing, science, but I recently realized that it is simply training your attention on something and learning all about it. I hope my son decides to be a scientist.”

I hate to be that kind of mom, deciding for my kids what they should be, but Eli, at 8, is currently deciding between becoming a pro baseball player or a scientist. I imagine the first will be harder to attain, especially if I don’t twist myself like a pretzel to sign him up for every practice opportunity, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the latter. I've so far kept mum on my hope.

I told my friend about the book I’d bought, The Science of Fear, and the trail of conversation moved quickly from Californian’s voting everything out because they realized they could, eliminating the usefulness of government, to Bloomberg’s efforts to create laws that take into account people's unwillingness to change their bad habits themselves for their own or the greater good, among them the one against restaurants using trans-fat, which I'm all for, benefit from personally whenever I eat fries, which is far too often.

"A friend said to me and it's true: 'sometimes what we want isn't what we need.'" I said. "That's why we have to have strong, bold leaders, a bit of benevolent fascism."

It was a whirlwind, even for me, and as I ran out the door, my new friend got a gold star.

I had tried on the train not to think about my visit to the ear, nose and throat doctor and, with it, the running of a tube up my nose to see my strained vocal chords. Yuck. I was reminded of the childhood chant, "Up your nose with a rubber hose..." Finally, it would be true. But I can’t focus too much on these things beforehand or I won’t go or, worse, I'm deathly afraid when I do.

Amidst the construction zone of the office as it got redone, the secretaries were still helpful and nice, and before I had time to make it through Vogue, the doctor herself came to get me. After a few pertinent questions that sought to make me question what I actually know about the workings of my own body, my own self,
she put anesthesia inside of my nose and left me to my post-nasal drip and my numbing. At least I wasn’t in a robe, back open to bare my butt. I had some dignity intact. That is, until she came back and stuffed a long tube further and further down my nose as she reminded me to breathe through my nose. Huh?

The cool thing was I thought about how cool it was, how amazing medicine and science are, how she could actually see my vocal chords and know something from this procedure. She seemed pleased at my amazement at her work and at the fact that, I told her, "Otorhinolaryngologist was, is, my all-time favorite word, ever."

She looked surprised when I told her. “No one knows that word…” she said.

I laughed. “I think it’s why I agreed to come when my doctor suggested it, I’ve always been really into that word, into the idea. Why don’t they use it anymore?”

She shrugged. “We get referred to as ‘The ENT Man,’ we speak English now. “

She was great, just like my internist who had recommended her, who she knew well. Good doctors are a godsend. So, as it turns out, was the diagnosis. I didn’t have a cancerous lump or even a polyp. I had, as my internist had surmised but couldn’t see enough to be sure, acid reflux, and not just a minor case, top o' the charts of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease sufferers.

It is insult to injury, being diagnosed with a disease let alone one referred to as GERD. Wow. I hate to be labeled, especially with such a dorky label as that. Plus, frankly, it doesn’t tell me anything I didn’t know, except that if I don’t avoid foods like chocolate, caffeine, citrus, onions and anything spicy, like I know from personal experience I should but often don’t, and take prescription medicine, which I fear, my vocal chords will not fare well. I could, eventually, go mute. My mother and I laughed at this notion when I called her with the prognosis.

“It’s a good thing you can type fast,” she said.

“That’s right. Maybe I’m a writer for a reason, ‘cause someday I’ll lose my voice and I still have to be able to communicate, constantly.”

Celebrating the diagnosis, I went shopping. I was right off Madison Ave. after all.

I hit a shoe store to see if I wanted those comfy clogs everyone is wearing. I picked a celery color, just to go against the grain. I’ve never seen that color in Park Slope. But the salesman, sheepishly, apologetically, shook his head when he returned from the back. No problem, I settled instead on basic brown, they'd go with more anyway.

“I’m going for it,” I said. “I need to reward myself…I found out today I have acid reflux.” I wasn’t about to say GERD…

His eyes lit up. “Me too!” he said, rattling off the things he couldn’t eat. I laughed, taking the Eating Well with GERD laminated card with all the shoulds and shouldn’ts out of my bag.

“Oh my God,” he said, “I’d love to go in the back and chat more about this,” he said, knowing it was impossible. There were more shoes to be sold.

We bonded, though, agreeing that us GERDers are sensitive souls, which is why our lower esophageal sphincters are so pressured. Must be that. Awesome, I’m in a new group I didn’t know existed, one where I like at least the first member I’ve met! Big gold star for this fabulous salesman, my new friend!

As he walked me to the door, saw me out as if we’d had a great evening together, he told me that he had actually lost 99 pounds as a result of his GERD diagnosis, as a result of the doctor giving him orders to do what he knew he needed to do but wouldn’t do without prodding.

“Hey! That brings me full circle!” I said. “I started my day talking about how sometimes it's good to have our hand forced to do what we won’t do but should unless we're given a little goose. How do you feel now? You look great, amazing!”

He beamed, standing tall and proud in slim-fit pants and a button-down, svelte and stylish. “I feel amazing,” he said.

Awesome. I walked out happy, with my shoes and the conversation, until I went to eat lunch and took out my laminated card. Compliments of AstraZeneca, my options are severely limited. Ugh.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Fearing Fear...

I talk about my fears and others' near constantly. It is a big subject in Park Slope, probably like anywhere except we are a communicative bunch, all of us at least desiring if not acting on our impulse to share at length our greatest anxieties. If not, we wouldn't live all huddled together, 62,000 of us in roughly one square mile.

For parents, the bulk of anxiety is directed toward schools, how good they are, whether they give too much or too little homework, how attentive the teachers are, how talented or not, whether private institutions offer enough to warrant the prohibitive cost, whether public ones offer enough to challenge little minds in between teaching to the necessary unnecessary tests. The anxieties and worry plague each and every one of us as if it, all of it, every bit of what keeps us up late or gets us up early, matters as a course of life or death.

I wonder to myself about my own beginning-of-the-year concerns about my cute little around-the-corner public school, my worry about if it is enough, if it needs to be more, if I shouldn't be doing more. Then, sometimes, I shrug, remembering my own not-perfect public school education, the fact that I remember most, more than almost anything else, my elementary school groundskeeper's sweet greeting and his lovingly tended rose garden. And, of course, the new library I saw get built, where I worked on my first newspaper articles for the Fruchthendler Firebird and where I sat, for as long as the librarian would have me, pouring through books that gave me a sense of belonging like little else did.

My parents were worried about a lot of things, about money, about buying groceries, my Mom about controlling her curly hair, my Dad about his golf handicap. But where we went to school? Not so much. We walked ourselves through the desert shortcut alone, even in kindergarten, to the sweet little school where Halloween was made much of, almost as much as Rodeo. Yes, that's right, in Tucson, Arizona, the rodeo coming to town is a marked event, something even we non-cowboy Jewish kids celebrated with dirt-laced pancakes in our sprawling schoolyard and square dancing on our basketball courts.

I try to remember to think as my children think, to appreciate the little things they appreciate, like the community they are surrounded by, the little interactions with the teachers and faculty who all know them by name, who know me. Those are the important things. They will learn to read, to write, to figure numbers. It is up to me to make them feel less afraid, to make them feel secure in being in the place they're in, whether it be their home, their school, their community, the Universe.

I gave a gold star this morning to a great mom brave enough to host a gaggle of boys in her home during a day off school. She was glad to have the chance to do it, having closed a show she had been acting in for a while, that took her out of the loop of her boys and their friends and their friends' parents. Good for her for sending out the invitation wide. It is always lovely to entertain at home, offering people coffee or tea and a little chat. It is what makes a community a real community if we let it. I don't do it nearly enough, she reminded me.

We talked, as usual among parents, about schools, and I posited out loud whether all these little details matter. They seem to, most assuredly in the moment, we make much of them. We can make positive changes through the PTA, through our attentions, for sure, but...I don't know.

The problems weren't going to get answered and Eli nagged me to stop talking, as usual, and take him to Barnes & Noble as I promised to buy the new Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, out today. Eli has been waiting for months, Oct. 12th stuck firmly in his mind as a special day. It had arrived at last and he nabbed the book out of the front window and stuck his nose in it for the next few hours. I tried, as well, to garner enthusiasm for a thought-provoking, amusing read. I lighted almost immediately on an orange-colored cover, on The Science of Fear by Daniel Gardner. Loved the title and the sub-title: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain.

Wow. A must-read for all of Park Slope, all of America, I imagine. The prologue alone had me gripped, giving as it did the oft-overlooked statistic that 1,595 people died in car accidents seemingly, according to one researcher, as a direct result of 9-11 scaring people away from air travel and into their cars.

The last line of the peskily-true prologue offered up the idea that while the families of all of these people thought these deaths were part of the "regrettable cost of living in the modern world", in reality, Mr. Gardner said, "It was fear that stole their loved ones."

A chill went down my spine along with the realization that I come to in many ways almost daily: we are focusing on the wrong things, doing the wrong things, simply out of fear. It is the big oops of our time and rectifying it is not so easy. It requires putting down the GPS and paying attention, not to the fear-mongering media or to other fearful, biased sources (those breathing and technological both,) but to history and to our own real-life experience.

In his first chapter, Mr. Gardner cited two of my own personal inspirations out of history, French philosopher Michel de Montaigne and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Hundreds of years apart, they both preached the same wise words: the thing we should be most afraid of is fear itself. "Unreasoning" fears, he suggests, will prevent us from prospering, they will paralyze us.

Gold star for Mr. Gardner. I can't wait to read the rest of the book if the prologue and first chapter provided so much fodder for thought!

Walking out of the bookstore, I hit the Radio Shack for new headphones for my iPod. I have been putting it off but could no longer, wires exposed, broken bits of plastic poking in my ear, one earpiece totally out, it was time. I bought, at the suggestion of the nice employee behind the counter, the best of the middling quality headphones and, at his urging, paid $3 extra for "insurance" should my $14 headphones fail me in the coming year. Wow. Insurance for headphones? Never heard of it, likely won't use it, but to assuage my worry for $3? Why not? I can't exactly figure whether Radio Shack is making money by offering this, by playing off the fears of its customers, or if it's just good customer service. I stick by my theory that the house must always win or why would they do it, but, either way, I reasoned, this was a reasonable fear. My headphones would indeed likely malfunction in the coming year. And even if they didn't, I wouldn't be out much money. It seemed like a relatively safe gamble. I gave the guy who encouraged me to get the insurance and explained it to me as I demanded, at length, a gold star, which he took with appreciation. We'll see if I see him again before too long or not. It's a slippery slope, fear.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Giving Stars to Stars

I hate approaching celebrities. I hate to bother them. They are, after all, just people, people who must be slightly if not terribly annoyed at having to put on a public face whenever they go out, at having to pretend they don't know that everyone is staring at them because they have had them in their living rooms, speaking to them, staring at them. It must, I think, be like sitting on the wrong side of the one-way mirror. Awkward at best.

At the height of Seinfeld's fame, in the early 90s, I walked out of my apartment on 68th St. and Broadway to find him shaking hands with Rob Reiner outside the Elite Diner downstairs, saying goodbye, parting ways. I proceeded, not on purpose, to walk with him up Broadway for roughly 20 blocks, at one point side by side on the wide paved walk next to the Natural History Museum, just the two of us. I watched the show religiously at that point, quoted it, felt as if I lived it as the scenes were filmed mostly right around me, in restaurants and cafes where I spent my time or at least walked by daily. And yet, what could I say? "Um, hello Mr. Seinfeld, I love your show!" What a dork. Like he hadn't heard that before, a million times? Like it wouldn't be totally embarrassing for both of us? I refrained from saying anything, maybe rightly but regretfully. In some respects, I imagined, it must be nice to know how you've touched people's lives with your art. But I was young, insecure, lame.

Years later, after a work Christmas party where I drank too much and was looking to keep drinking, I ran into George Clooney and Randy Gerber (aka Cindy Crawford's husband) at Mr. Gerber's Whiskey Bar at the W Hotel. I was standing there innocently, just trying to get a beer, while the bartender was deeply absorbed with Mr. Clooney and Mr. Gerber, his boss's boss's boss. I waited patiently, then I waited some more a little less patiently and, then, I could wait no longer.

"Um, excuse me?" I said to the two paparazzi-hounded gentleman hogging the bartender in my most sweet, demure tone, "I'm afraid standing next to you guys I'm never going to get a drink..."

George Clooney immediately hopped to, grabbing my arm and apologizing profusely. "Sorry, sweetie," he said, looking into my eyes with his own fabulous ones, "What can I get you?"

"Just a beer would be great, whatever," I said. Randy Gerber barely looked up. I told him that I knew his sister-in-law, that she was a friend of mine from college, but he didn't really care. Meanwhile, Mr. Clooney came back with my beer in hand. "There you go," he said, "so sorry!" I thanked him and walked away. See, I wouldn't have bothered him, but really, a girl needs her beer when she needs her beer...

I could go on with various star-sighting stories, but they're all, excepting the interaction with Mr. Clooney, virtually the same. I see people who have affected my life, who I greatly admire or simply lust after, and I am silent. John Turturro in the t-shirt shop by my house, Chris Noth in Grey Dog's Coffee in the Village, Diane Wiest in the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble. All of them got away scott free.

I have been thinking lately that a lot of celebs deserve gold stars, that they actually have difficulties that many people scoff at simply because they have money and fame. They are, after all, just people, trying the same as everyone else. They have been recognized, sure, but at what price?

Well, yesterday, I had my chance. I purposely put a small strip of gold stars in my tiny going-out wristlet as I headed into the city for my birthday dinner, just in case I should come upon a situation that called for them, as I most always do, especially if I don't have them. Right away, on the train platform, I encountered Steve Buscemi. He is a world-reknowned actor and also a local, someone I see fairly often around and about. He is usually keeping to himself, going about his business like the rest of us. I have never felt right bothering him to tell him how I admire his acting, his choice of roles and projects. I had the same feeling this time but, then, it began to gnaw at me: doesn't he deserve a gold star?

I had just seen Mr. Buscemi in a documentary made by a friend, a great film about a great actor, John Cazale, who died too young. It was an entree to talking to him, I figured, a film that has not (yet) been seen widely, that he had supported, that I was linked to personally through a friend. And, I reasoned, I could finally test out the star power of my star...would a star take a gold star? How would they react?

As I sat near to him on the train, I tried to get up the gumption. Giving out the stars to your average person takes a bit of courage, more than a bit of faith that the project is a good one, that the person won't look at you like you're crazy. Giving it to a famous person upped the ante. I reasoned to myself that I really wanted to do it, that it was my birthday, that it wasn't a big deal and that, even if I looked stupid, it would be only briefly. I've looked stupid for worse reasons and for far longer.

I waited until just before I was getting off, just as the train pulled out of the Second Ave. station. I got up, gold star stuck to my pointer finger in readiness.

"Excuse me," I said, tapping him slightly on the shoulder, "I don't mean to bother you, but I wanted to give you this." I handed him the star and he took it, looking up at me. "I just saw you in my friend's movie, about John Cazale? You were great, and I've really enjoyed all of your performances so...I just wanted to thank you!"

He looked at me with pure pleasure and gratitude, a big smile across his face. "Thank you so much!" he said.

I smiled. "Thank you!" I said, and walked away, standing only for a moment in the doorway in front of him before I departed the train at Broadway/Lafayette.

I giggled as I got off the train. Mission accomplished, well received, lovely. I wrote a lot about celebrity seeding when I wrote about marketing. It's a good tactic for my own project but, more than that, it's just nice to be nice, to anybody, famous or not famous. It felt good to recognize someone, even someone who is easily recognized. I imagine it can be lonely at the top.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Birthday Blurt

I have a love/hate relationship with my birthday as with all things that are supposed to be good, as with sunny days and Christmas. I say I don't care, that it doesn't matter what I do, what people do for me, but then there is a gnawing expectation and resultant disappointment when people fail to do amazing feats on my behalf. Pathetic. I'd rather stay in bed all day and wait until it's done.

Instead, though, I am going to write the blog entry I've been wanting to write, the one that has no overarching theme but that captures all the little snippets, the little hilarious, thought-provoking moments that have inspired the gold stars that might get overlooked because they are not part of the arc of the narrative. It is my blog version of a clip show. It is my birthday, I can do what I want!

First things first. I just awarded a gold star to a former colleague and friend whose parenting I have always admired, whose stories I have listened to with selfish interest in the hopes I may be able to implement similar strategies when I get to that stage. Her oldest daughter, who I still imagine in grade school, has flown the coop finally, gone to college. I get a lump in my throat just thinking about that. She had told me she was headed to parents weekend last week and, today, I asked her how it went. Her reaction was immediate: big eyes, clapping her hands together, she enthused, "SHE SAID I WAS RIGHT!"

Another mother and I cracked up and, at the same time, I think, were totally, absolutely impressed. It didn't even matter what she was right about, the fact that her daughter, nearly an adult, acknowledged that her mother was right about something was enormous, a mountain moved. Hilarious.

She went on. "She couldn't even look at me when she said it, and then she said, 'Can we talk about something else now?'" We laughed. Acknowledging the rightness of a mother's advice on such a big, personal, independent decision as where to go to college was hard, not something to linger on. Admitting you might have been wrong, let alone to parents who might very well say, "I told you so..." took a lot of guts. I gave my friend the gold star, but her daughter deserves one too.

Now, on a totally separate note, I want to acknowledge gold star giveaways to others. First, to the carpenter I met at Parco who recommended I buy at Ikea instead of pay him an exorbitant fee to build custom bookshelves. I had to fight him to convince him that I didn't like particle board mass-produced, that I actually believed in the quality of handmade goods, real wood, especially when it came to holding precious cargo, like books.

"Aren't you shooting yourself in the foot, putting yourself out of business?" I asked.

"No," he said. "It's easier for me to go with someone to Ikea to pick something out, then charge them a small fee to put it together and put it up. I'm thinking I may start a business just doing that. I don't need ALL the money, just some of it. I'm not trying to rape anybody, just to make a little money."

I gave him a gold star, although really I just want to give him some business, allow him to practice his craft. I don't know if I can afford it right now, though, that's the thing. That's the thing he knows. He is being practical, realistic when he refers potential clients to the cheaper competition, when he tries to still cash in on what the Big Box guys are doing. Smart.

Another recent standout is a woman I know who is studying hard, at Bank Street, to be a teacher. Her kids are at my kids' school and I bent her ear the other day asking questions and giving my opinions on education in general, the school where we have chosen to educate our own children in particular. Teaching is a terribly difficult thing, a terribly important thing, but it has been treated in our society as a trade like any other, a job with benefits and a pension. There is so much one has to learn in order to teach others how to learn, let alone actually teach them something. Interestingly enough, though, she was straightforward in her belief that what kids really learn, they learn at home. I couldn't agree more, gold star for her. I tell myself that often when I hear of the amazing opportunities afforded some of kids' friends in private school or at the magnet schools I could switch to if I so chose. My kids will be enthusiastic about learning, about acquiring knowledge and applying it if I am, if I continue to learn and acquire knowledge myself in front of them.

Which brings me to my next gold star. I am writing an article for a friend's new online magazine about an organization, Baal Dan, that helps orphans and street children in India. I interviewed the founder yesterday, an amazing young woman who started out with the idea of helping and just did it, raising more than $200,000 from friends and coworkers at her Dallas ad agency over the last few years and singlehandedly going to India to shop in markets for what real kids really need, for food and toys and underwear, and giving it to them. I cried as I typed, as she told me that "In fact, one person can make a difference, I am living proof." She is right. I am cynical sometimes, eschewing doing things I should because I am stopped by fear that it won't be enough. My new French roommate, a fabulous soul full of idealism, calls me on it. That, and babysitting, is why he is welcome to live in my house for free for as long as he likes.

"Isn't it better to do a little than to do nothing at all?" he questioned me the other night when I scoffed on the pathetic attempts we in Park Slope make to go green, to eat organic. I ranted on for a bit about how my bullshit meter goes off when people make their small attempts, but really, in the end, of course, he is right. If I stop using plastic bags or paper cups, and others do too, the giant reams of plastic bags and paper cups in grocery stores and cafes will eventually get smaller. I know this, but it seems overwhelming. I will have to think about Baal Dan's founder, who advised not to be afraid of scary statistics, to just do your little bit. She quoted Mother Theresa: if you can't feed 100 people, just feed one."
I love that. Gold star for her, for my roommate for young idealists one and all.

Questioning is key, imagining there might actually be answers and that if you think hard enough about it you'll come up with them is crucial. I have to give a gold star, as usual to my kids. First, to Oscar, who screwed up his cute little face the other night at the Chinese restaurant after Eli posited that "everything is made in China." After a moment's pause to come up with why that wasn't true, he said, relief in his countenance: "No! Brooklyn wasn't made in China..." Brilliant.

Next, to Eli, who is nothing if not totally seeking The Truth. As he sat reading next to me in the kitchen the other day, he started a chapter in his Magic Tree House book titled, I saw, "The Universe." The title must have made him think.

"What's it really about, Mommy?" he asked, taking his nose out of the book. "I mean, is it about what we are inside, in here," he gestured to his own little chest, "or is it about everything outside, the Universe? What is life really about?"

I think I took a step back. How semen comes out was hard, the littany of questions sparked by his book about past presidents including whether every single one of them had been good or bad, what communism was, what did paranoia and scandal mean, those were hard too. But the meaning of life? Really? Shit. Luckily, I blog about such things. I simply referred him to a past blog entry, to the rabbi's mention of Einstein's theory of optical delusion.

"Have you heard of Einstein?" I said.

"Of course, duh," he said, reminding me he was in fact 8.

"Well, he said we are all coming at the world from our own view, from inside ourselves, of course, but that we need to be connected to others, to be part of the larger Universe, that's important. So I guess it's a combination?!"

His nose was already back in the book. Maybe Magic Tree House could be more elucidating. "Whatever," he said.

Whatever. The meaning of life, whatever. A new yoga instructor I tried yesterday reminded the class constantly to focus inwards as we went about our practice in the hopes that doing so would help us be more present in the world, to really be able to pay attention to external forces. Another yoga instructor/counselor sent me a link to a website where the writer spoke of remembering to stop and the smell the roses, to pay attention. Today, at 39, I will try to remember that. I have already, in advance of the day, received a fair number of gold stars via Facebook. Thanks for noticing everyone! I am trying and so, it seems, is everyone else, in their own unique, funny ways to find some meaning, to find some answers. Remembering that is the best birthday present of all!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Talking Poop

I am learning to be shameless. Sadly, if you believe in your message, it is important to be bold enough to put it out there, to entice people in a way that speaks to their most base instincts and needs. For example, putting ORGASM in all caps in my blog teaser on Facebook. One friend/reader said, "You definitely got my attention!" Others obviously agreed. I got the most readers I’ve had so far in a single day the day I wrote about orgasms and shamelessly promoted the entry by changing my status, twice.

Of course, I should not be even mildly surprised by this. I was a journalist after all, writing about marketing, for more than a decade. Although I didn’t write too many headlines at my last job, I wrote them endlessly as editor of my high school paper, for tests in journalism school, in my head every time something happens in the world. Obama won on a one-word headline: Change! I scoffed, seeing it as both brilliant and manipulative, like all good marketing. Simple, easy, playing on an idea people were already thinking about, that they needed. We are all thinking about orgasms more than we will admit openly and, it could be argued, we need them. It's a no-brainer.

It was with all this in mind that I recognized right away the necessity of making POOP the subject of a blog entry when it came up in conversation the other day. But then I wondered: the adage is that sex sells, not fecal matter. But don't people secretly want to talk more about poop, know more about it than they might admit? If our children are the barometer of what we want to talk about but shouldn't in 'polite' company, then poop is certainly right up there with sex.

What's funny is that, being a parent, you are allowed to talk about poop, your children’s if not your own. It becomes possible to openly discuss the consistency and color of what moves out of the bowels if it is moving out of little bodies. But the other day, in conversation with a café friend, one I covet when I see him because of the honest words that come out of his mouth, the honesty that shines straight out of his clear blue eyes, the subject of poop came up regarding adults, regarding him in particular.

At first I thought I hadn’t heard him right, but all of a sudden he was talking about some health concern and how he had discovered it: through his poop.

“It just wasn’t right, hadn’t been for a while, so I got it checked out,” he said. Makes sense. He went, he said, to a "reknown gay proctologist..."

I laughed. "That sounds like a punchline, 'the reknown gay proctologist.' Does it matter that he was gay?" I questioned. My friend is gay but I wasn't sure how it pertained that the proctologist was...

"Well, actually, he wrote The Book on anal sex, so..." here he trailed off, shaking his head disappointedly. "Turns out he was terrible, though, a total asshole." He had gone on to someone else who helped.

I should just end here. Hard to top that. That anyone thinks they can "write The Book" on any kind of particular sex is funny to me, that the 'reknown gay proctologist' who wrote the one on anal sex is an asshole...Wow. A writer dreams about material like this, rarely comes upon it. Gold star, friend, gold star!

At this point, the conversation about poop faded in favor of something else, something less But I was glad it had come up. It had reminded me that it's worthwhile to be cognizant of one's poop, of one's children's poop. He reminded me that I need to check in every once in a while despite my kids being able to wipe themselves now to make sure everything is coming out all right, so we don't end up at any proctologist, let alone the asshole.

Monday, October 5, 2009

To Be Or Not To Be Yourself

Our expectations of what other people are and should be, what we are and should be, are so complicated. I have encountered a lot of instances recently in which people tell me they need to drink alcohol to bring out the anger they wish they had more of, or that they need to smoke pot to calm the inner anger. We all wish we could be something other than what we are, some idealized version of the perfect self we see in our mind’s eye yet cannot quite reach despite a bevy of substances. The funny thing is, though, that we are all seeking someone out there, some appreciative other, who sees who we really are and thinks we’re awesome, maybe not even in spite of the warts but because of them. Not that we like ourselves, but wouldn’t it be great if someone else did?

I went out with a friend last night to see Lucinda Williams in the city and, on the train, ran into one of my café pals. I waved and waved but he didn’t seem to see me until he was almost upon me. He blamed his momentary blindness on age and on the fact, he acknowledged, that he was, as usual “in my own head.”

The reason he was so wrapped up in his thoughts this particular evening was because he was headed out on a date and was trying, desperately he said, to determine what not to say.

I laughed. “What not to say? You’re not worried about what you will say but what you won’t say, what you shouldn’t say?”

“That’s right,” he said. “Like I probably shouldn’t mention how I have this little muffin top over my jeans, which is why I’m wearing this jacket…I’ll keep the jacket on.”

Again,I laughed. I'd have given a gold star if I'd had one, but I was off duty.

“Hmmm,"I said," Maybe you're right...I guess that might be a third-date conversation."

Then, though, I stopped to think. Sure, maybe there are things you shouldn’t say, but isn’t that lame? Fake? I know this guy, not well, but enough to know he is a great conversationalist, that he says his mind, even to perfect strangers like me. It was how we had started talking, openly, about anything and everything.

“Come on, though,” I said. “Are you really going to be able to hold back? And do you want to? That’s not who you are, and if it’s going to work, doesn’t the other person have to like you for who you are?”

We pondered this universal question as we headed into Manhattan, until we parted ways, my friend and I wishing him—and his date—a lovely evening and, hopefully, a love connection.

I was discussing today in a phone conversation with a friend this question of who we really are versus who we sometimes feign to be at the beginning of a relationship. She is not long married and is, like me, like everyone, trying to navigate the murky waters of long-term relationship. She all of a sudden came to an epiphany.

“Maybe that’s it, maybe that’s the problem!” she said. “Now, my husband and I are so ourselves, we’re not putting on a show anymore. We just come home, let it all hang out, watch TV…when he put on airs, he was hotter than hot. And I…well, let’s just say the guy I flirt with in the bike shop doesn’t know how deeply disturbed I am. That’s why it’s fun! That’s why it makes me feel good!”

It is a crazy Catch-22, trying to both be your real self but be your best self, to be both the self you like and the one that your partner will continue to appreciate, for the long haul. It is a tall order, a tippy balance at best. Gold star to everyone who tries.

In the park yesterday, sitting in the grass watching our son and his friends yank mercilessly at a tree, my husband and I watched as a man rode by on the nearby path on his bike. He looked briefly at us then looked back again.

“Wow, he just did a double take,” my hubby said, seemingly shocked, looking at me to try to determine if the man had been staring at me, and if so, why.

“Hmmm. Do you think I’m double-take worthy?” I asked.

“I guess I don’t know. I mean I think you’re hot, but you’re my wife. I don’t know what a passerby might see,” my adoring husband responded. Thanks.

“Well, maybe you should walk by as if you’re a stranger, see what you think,” I said. This is the fun you have after 17 years. He obliged, getting up and walking a few paces to the sidewalk, heading away and then back toward me, trying to see me with fresh eyes.

As he came back across the path, he just shook his head. “I know you too well. It doesn’t work.”

We just laughed. Try as we might, it is nearly impossible to see one another anew. All we can do is try to present the best old version.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Funny--Or Not--'Cause It's True

Someone who learned about my blog anew yesterday asked me who I give gold stars to, and why.

"For good deeds?" she suggested.

"No," I said, "just in moments when I see that people are trying."

I thought more about it, though, after she walked away. I mean, I think everyone is trying in one way or another and, yet, I don't give out stars to everyone. Why not? What stops me from pulling out the stars for every Jack, Jim and Josephine that looks like they might need one? Aside from the fact that I think handing them out en masse weakens their affect, I also realized that my reasoning for remembering to pull out a star in conversations with certain people is often entirely selfish, simply about what I received from the exchange.

Thinking back on the stars I remember giving most, the bulk of them have been awarded in moments when someone makes me laugh. If I get a good guffaw from what someone says, really throw back my head and give it the full expressional brunt of my amusement, I will almost always think to reach for a gold star. I love to laugh, can't laugh often enough. I am so grateful when someone helps me get there. A gold star is their reward.

Digging deeper, though, I have to stop to think about why I laugh when someone says something. Seeing my children begin to be extremely funny and understand even subtle humor, I realize it is not an easy thing to understand, it is complicated, nonsensical even much of the time. But, as my husband often says after he laughs about something, quoting Homer Simpson, "it's funny 'cause it's true!"

I guess if I were to have to pick the reason I laugh the most, it's because someone says something that rings so true, that I've thought about a million times but never managed to put into words or been brave enough to say out loud, honestly and with conviction. Take an exchange I had with a friend the other day. We were sitting, having coffee, chatting about what was new, including his wife. She is, not unlike myself or any of the women I know, always in search of what she can do to try to feel better, about her job, about her self, and yes, about her marriage. He looked tired about the eyes as he talked about her efforts, pushing out his lips and shaking his head in mock defeat.

"Look," he said, somewhat angrily, "we men worry about shit too, but we just don't talk about it all the time!"

"Why not?" I asked."Maybe that's the problem...maybe you need to express yourself more, maybe that would make her feel better," I suggested.

"Oh, sure," he said, fully animated now, gesturing wildly, with slight maliciousness but a smile, "I'm going to open my mouth? Why would I do that? I just know, then, that the second half of the conversation is going to turn completely toward what I have done wrong, why it's all my fault!"

I burst out, causing a stir at the booths around us, head straight back. It was funny because it was so, so true. My husband, once a highly talkative man, has become mute often in the face of my wrath, knowing that a single false word could trigger me toward what he could have done differently, what he did or didn't do. What's worse, though, is that I make him talk, force him against his will to engage because, much as I have been accused of monologuing, I actually don't like one-way conversations when I'm trying to communicate with other people. So then he contributes something and it's nearly always wrong, not what I would have him say at all. I realize all this and yet...and yet...Sad. I don't know why women do this, why men put up with it. In our defense though, ladies, we often have valid points, I'm just not sure we do ourselves any great service by making them all the time. Constant criticism of husbands, as with children, can only serve to make a bad situation worse.

A little kindness and understanding keeps the lines of communication open. The reverse is also true. A friend of mine at the gym is always, always complaining about his wife. He does a stand-up routine in which he paints her as the pathetic housewife: She doesn't work, she doesn't cook, she doesn't clean, she doesn't even share his bed. She's useless, he says. In this case, it's not so funny, 'cause it's true.

Why stay married I often ask? Not that it's any of my business, but he seeks me out to tell me about it, so I figure I have the right to ask.

"For the kid," he says.

"Right, I'm sure you guys hating each other is really good for the kid," I said.

"Well, what am I supposed to do, go to the poor house? It's a financial decision..."

I shook my head. Something's gotta give, I thought. And, then, it occurred to me.

"Come with me," I said, gesturing to him to follow me as I walked over to the cubby to get my bag. I pulled out two of the biggest gold stars in the pack, slapping one on him and giving him another, for his wife.

"Give this to her, please," I said.

He scoffed. "What has she done? She doesn't deserve this, she's useless," he said.

"And she will continue to be if you keep calling her useless. The two of you need to get it together, stop being so mean to each other! I am not going to talk to you again unless you tell me you gave it to her, and with grace!" I said, walking away. "I know you can do it."

I'm not so delusional as to think a gold star could solve a tough marital situation in and of itself, but it might be a step toward showing faith in efforts expended, a step toward reinstating hope. I'll keep my fingers crossed, and I'll keep giving out gold stars, just in case they could help.