Monday, March 29, 2010

A Chocolate World Seems Nice...

We pulled into the parking lot of Hershey’s Chocolate World. We had been selling the idea big to the kids about how exciting the place would be. It was the only major sight between New York and our spring break destination in Virginia, a house along the Blue Ridge Parkway our friends had bid on in an auction at our urging.

We walked up to the enormous structure with the strong waft of manure strong in our noses reminding us that mostly what Hershey makes is milk chocolate, the milk taken from the many cows we had seen along the way on our route through Pennsylvania.

People streamed in. We weren’t alone in hoping to find a way to amuse the children en route. Apparently, in high season, in the summer, as many as 22,000 a day visit the tourist/marketing site. Today, I was told, it would be more like two or three thousand. Still a lot of people come to see the way candy is made and get the chance to buy some.

We started out with lunch in the food court, a beautiful tree-filled, indoor atrium that astounded Eli. “How did they get these in here?” He wondered, staring up at the tall palms. “What do they do when they grow too tall?”

His brother had another question, looking around at all the branded items, the Hershey World. He shook his head. “Why are they doing all this?” he said curiously, narrowing his eyes. I had to laugh. It was a great question.

“Well,” I said, “I think the point is to make people happy. Then, of course, they want to make money…”

As we started on our tour, I sought to find answers to Oscar’s question as much as the kids looked to find answers to the questions on the scavenger hunt list they’d been given. The timeline of the history of Hershey founder Milton Hershey, born in 1857, was broken into three sections: Builds a Chocolate Business, Builds a Town and Builds a Legacy.

Apparently, Mr. Hershey started a business that failed after six years but then he tried again. Hard work and perseverance paid off and he built a successful caramel company that he later sold for $1 million, money he used to build a milk chocolate factory back in his native Pennsylvania, around which he built a town for the workers with the best interest of their families in mind, with schools and a community pool, everything necessary and even some things that weren’t.

With the $60 million he amassed from that milk chocolate, Mr. Hershey and his wife, childless, endowed a school for orphaned boys, The Milton Hershey School, in 1918. By 1963, Mr. Hershey had amassed another $50 million that he poured into a medical school and teaching hospital at Penn State.

I shook my head as I took notes. I wrote about Hershey for so long as a packaged goods reporter for Ad Age. My brain was filled with conflicting thoughts as it always had been when I reported out a story. There is nothing inherently bad about chocolate, about many decadent foods. It is only our abuse of them that is a problem. But that abuse builds big businesses, the money from which is then used, often to do good things, to build healthcare facilities that have to help solve the problems we create with the over-indulgence of certain foods. It is a conundrum, one Mr. Hershey likely did not foresee. Success, I think, brings with it unintended consequences. We do not control what other people do with what we create, but there is a sense of responsibility we must have in marketing things to people in ways they might misconstrue.

Take, for example, the ride around the sample chocolate factory. We loaded into the little car and were carried through past singing cows and flowing chocolate rivers as we were shown how cocoa blended with sugar and milk to make chocolate. “Milk gives Hershey its added nutritional value,” a voice said over our heads at one point. A digital counter showed the production numbers, offering up that by 1:20, there had been 25, 715 Hershey bars produced. Lots of “nutrition.” As the ride came to an end, the voice offered up the same answer to Oscar that I had given, the point of the place:

“Bringing happiness to you is what we’re all about,” it said in conclusion.
Yes, happiness. We were given a sample of new mint Hershey’s Pieces, which we ate a few of before we felt sick. We walked around, admiring the plush Kisses and Peppermint Pattie people and the oversized candy bars, including one enormous bar a bunch of boys were buying to eat together. Fun. Also more than a little disgusting. We bought some Twizzlers, some Good & Plenty (my personal fave) and some Hershey Bars, slightly oversized, for s’mores at the house.

In line for the 3D movie, we got into a conversation with some locals about how candy bars in vending machines are getting bigger. I weighed in with information from a friend about how diabetes doctors offer soda in their vending machines. One guy laughed.

“It’s called job security…” he said.

I sighed. All Milton Hershey wanted to do was bring happiness. He did a good job. He made money. He hired a lot of people. He wanted to help them keep their jobs, feed their families. To do so required selling more chocolate. They got good at that, figured out how to get people to want more. People ate too much. They got fat. More money was made, healthcare was required. Mr. Hershey’s money went to fund that. Oh, what a tangled web we weave. No doubt everyone’s trying. But we need to do better. We need to try harder.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Let "Them" Be...

I imagined, as I walked there, that yoga might solve all my problems or, at least, give me the presence of mind to focus on solutions to figure how to do all I have to do, to prioritize and put things in their proper place.

When I got there, some women from the morning meditation class were talking as they packed up to leave.

"Well," one said, "they say..."

I don't even know what she said afterward. I was stuck on the "they."

I laughed. "Who are 'they,' anyway?" I recounted a line I had read once from an article about Simpsons writer George Meyer, though, thinking back, I butchered it. What he said was, "If they can kill the Kennedy's, how come they can't make a good cup of coffee?"

The line, one that always makes me chuckle, sparked conversation about why we have to reference others, this nameless, faceless "they" to say what we ourselves think, to make it sound convincing?

As a long-time journalist, I know this. I know it is a common excercise to troll for like-minded sources, experts who you know will agree with the gut instinct that gave you the idea for the story in the first place, that will lend credence to your otherwise crack-pot theory.

Another woman piped in, offering a line from a magazine writer friend who says often, "If you have no clue what you're talking about, you say, 'obviously.'"

Laughter broke out amongst all of us ladies, those coming and going, to or from trying to get centered. We all knew what that felt like, that's why it was funny. So often we are stuck in a place, pretending we know more than we do or not trusting that we have a clue when maybe we really do.

I gave a gold star to the woman with the guffaw-producing line and we discussed at length the value or lack thereof of research, of finding some clues as to real answers. My position? I'm not sure there are any "real" answers. "Research" is something I pointed to a lot with great skepticism: any study seems like it could produce a variety of outcomes, depending on the methods used and who is paying the money to do the research. It is a challenge. Easier, it seems, just to vaguely refer to "they..." or say something you feel with the very convincing "obviously" attached.

In class, trying to quiet the blather in my brain, I listened to the instructor, to Judy, as she posited the reason for a particular position.

"I didn't want to get out of bed, I was laying like this...and then I thought, 'hmmm, I could just do this in class.'" She laughed as she said it, slightly defensively because she was doing something simply because she wanted to. She gave us license, then, to do the same. "Just lay in bed and say, 'I'm doing my yoga. Be sure to say my yoga," she said. "The my makes it sound more important."

I smiled. We are all working so hard to justify ourselves, to justify what we say and do. I wish that wasn't the case. I wish we could just do what felt right and know that it was right, that, even if others disagreed, we could trust our own selves, "they" be damned. Man, I'm trying. I actually gave myself a gold star today just for that reason, for the simple reason that I am trying on so many levels even if, on some mornings, yoga or no, it doesn't seem like those efforts are gaining any traction, like others get it or care, like I even care.

Judy offered up advice on this, too, albeit unwittingly. "As you stand on the edge of your mat, on the precipice of your practice, it seems sometimes like you have to go forward or back. Sometimes, though, you can just be..."

Amen. I have to remember that and remember to remind others of that too. Forget what "they" say or think, and, sometimes, just learn to be.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Tao of Trouble

To restore family harmony, we often turn to board games. Somehow it seems to fix whatever has been fouling us up, the four of us together around the table, focused on rules made up by others, by Parker Bros. or Milton Bradley probably. Last night, Eli brought out an old favorite, one we hadn't all played together in a while: Trouble.

As we played, popping the Pop-o-matic with gusto and gaining enthusiasm as the stakes grew, I began to understand why games might help: indirectly, they let you work out all your problems. For example, it looked at the beginning like Oscar was the clear leader, with most of his men out (a move that requires popping up a 6) and halfway around the board toward home, toward a win. I, on the other hand, had not been so lucky, had popped up not a single 6, and was sitting, stuck, right where I had started. Eli and the hubby were somewhere in between.

"I'm going to win, I'm going to win," Oscar began to chant. I just laughed.

"Aaah, but that's the thing about Trouble," I said with a somewhat snarky smile, "You can never tell...your luck could change. Anything could happen."

Oscar then threw something at me I think and changed his chant to, "You're mean, you're mean..." Chastising him but smiling all the same I shrugged, "Sorry, but it's true..."

Shortly thereafter, my prediction was correct and Oscar was basically sent back to the beginning by others landing on him. I was doing well, out after a long wait and moving quickly around the board.

Under my breath, to the hubby, not wanting to inspire more ire from Oscar, who was currently dealing well with his fate, I offered up why I always loved Trouble. "See," I said, "this game is great because it prepares you for being able to deal with setbacks and learn to recover," I said. "You have to realize that you have no control over things..."

Geord looked at me, as usual, as if I had two heads but as if he liked people with two heads. "Only you," he said, "could philosophize about Trouble..."

But it's true! I see in my kids how they learn so many skills from these games we play, how patience plays such a big role in putting up with things over which you have no control, in ceding any semblance of sense over how and why things change suddenly in unexpected and expected ways.

Change. Spring brings on many conversations about change. I have found myself in my building lobby discussing with neighbors how nice it is to feel warmer air, to put away the coats and hats and gloves we have been cloaked with, to emerge into life once again like the buds that are beginning to push out of the seemingly lifeless branches all around. As people appreciate Spring, they often lament the necessity of winter, why we have to go through it at all. I laughed at one neighbor as she hopefully described her perfect weather place, a consistently warm place, not too hot, not too cold, all the time.

"The next time you come up with the universe," I said, "you can create that..." It is nearly true of some places, like California, but, really, being from Arizona, I appreciate the change of seasons here, even the dark bleakness of winter with all that brings, including the true appreciation of the fresh zing of Spring.

On another day recently, I told another neighbor with whom the subject of weather came up just that. "We have to have Winter to appreciate Spring," I said. I got him to begrudgingly agree, which always buoys me to go even further. "Change is life," I said, and, as I said it, a homework assignment of Oscar's rang in my head. It had described over a couple of pages the attributes of living things versus non-living things, something that, beyond first grade, we seem to take for granted. Then, he was asked to answer a number of questions, central among them what are some of the differences between living and non-living things. The number one difference, of course, is change: one changes and one does not.

We are often loathe to change unless we have to, though, even still. It is why I live in a city dynamic enough to demand change often, in a place whose weather and ways requires that I transition more often than I might. Oscar would not have changed the course of Trouble when he was on a winning streak, but losing, as he eventually did, to his father, made him stronger. He will recognize now that things change and that he has to make his peace with it, like we all do, with weather, with the vagaries of daily life, with eventual death that brings with it, sadly, or so we think, the end of the change.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Givin' Gold for Health Care Reform!!

I couldn't have been happier to see on my Blackberry this morning the news of VICTORY from Planned Parenthood that Congress had passed the health care reform bill. The message was coded in gold, as it should have been: our elected officials deserve a big gold star for taking this very important step toward changing what is arguably the most problematic issue plaguing America today. The health care issue is probably the most emblamatic of how we have gone awry in our efforts to offer up the incentives necessary for a productive society, so awry that people, even so-called "productive" ones, can not afford to take care of their own physical health.

I wrote an article about health care recently that will soon appear in The Spirit of Women magazine, a thin but chock-full publication that appears in doctors' offices around the country offering up real, practical advice on hot topics, including, as one might expect, topics germaine to staying healthy. The short piece tries to outline in a mere 400 words how people might be able to procure health care without health insurace. Ha. Its brevity seemed, at the outset, like a necessity, it might have been even shorter, like two words: YOU CAN'T! Turns out that is far from true, that there are actually a lot of places people can turn besides the emergency room to get free preventative health screenings and a limited scope of care. The powers that be have already, before Congress signed anything, begun to realistically offer help to those who can't get their scrambled worried heads around the idea of how to take care of their own health.

It is in that unscrambling, the relief of worry, that we will solve the health care problem. An expert in the field, Paul Knutson, a mission development specialist for a healthcare facility in Minnesota, offered up the idea that, instead of just focusing as we have for the last 50 to 80 years on accute care, on managing 'chronic disease,' we have to look more closely at the "social determinants of health, most notably the environment, social inclusion, employment and food choices."

We have, he said, focused far too much simply on offering access to medication. Doctors come in with prescription pads to fix problems that should have, could have been prevented had we thought to have the conversation long before it was a problem. But we haven't been able to afford to find someone to talk to. Maybe now, hopefully, that will change. Mr. Knutson said that just knowing one has access to a relationship with a doctor can help immensely.

"Research has shown that if a child can name their doctor, they're healthier...but so many times there is a fee for service upfront so that doesn't happen," he said.

Maybe, now, it will. Gold stars go out to Mr. Knutson and all those in the trenches who will be charged with carrying out the laws of the higher powers, who will have to figure out exactly what "health care reform" means. But the first step, as anyone knows, is admitting there is a problem, not just trying to forge forward on a faulty premise. We cannot take care of ourselves. We need help. We need to be able to reach out to people who might help us worry less about our health, not that they always are sure how to fix us but who can at least partner with us to figure it. Together, we have a far better chance of feeling better.

I am cautiously optimistic. The passage of the health care reform bill, like election night, where simply choosing a seemingly fair-minded democrat with a sweeping idealistic promise of "Change" seemed a bit early to drink champagne in celebration, is just the beginning of a long, hard road.

We have a lot of lobbies to appease, lots of groups whose living is predicated on dealing with disease, whose jobs are in jeopardy if we solve some of the nation's ills. Like with any reasonably effective pharmaceutical, the best we seem to be able to do at any given time, when we solve one problem, is to create another. I hope there are a lot of great minds giving a great deal of thought to how we should go forward, great minds that are masterful at making our country's leader and his minions pay close attention and act. Change doesn't happen overnight, I know. It has taken us a fair number of decades to get into this mess, mixing business with how we take care of our country's bodies. It will take us a while to unwind the complicated cords we have created. But it's so awesome that ears seem to be open, that are ready to discuss, realistically, how we might in fact change, that a majority has spoken in recognition of the need for change. YEAH!!!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Teach a Man to Cook...

I sat in the front row in the demo kitchens at the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side last week, listening to legendary French chef Jacques Pepin talk about cooking fresh, good food fast, just as he does in his new PBS Series and book, More Fast Food My Way.

It just so happened that he was talking about a recipe for chicken and olive tapenade that the JCC has adapted for one of its many cooking classes, "Famous Chefs' Famous Chicken Recipes." It just so happened that he was on hand at the urging of kosher brand Manischewitz, who was staging the cook-off finals for five home chefs who had figured easy 8-ingredient recipes using their new all-natural chicken broth with no MSG.

Mr. Pepin graciously complimented the JCC chef who had overseen the Chicken Supremes with Tapenade and Mushroom Sauce that the room of writers was allowed to sample. "You did a great job," he said. She smiled. "Thanks," she said, sheepish but clearly pleased. It must have been awesome for her to hear kudos from the great chef himself. He spoke about how he "uses the supermarket as a prep cook...", cutting complicated too-time-consuming steps by purchasing some easy prepared products, good ones of the kind he could get behind, ones that made cooking at home a minimal effort, like canned Manishewitz chicken broth.

A JCC rep spoke about Manishewitz as a brand that, "if you grew up Jewish, evokes so many memories of family..."

At that, the woman next to me let out a loud, "Oy..." I laughed and looked over at her. "Trauma..." she whispered, in memory of Manishewitz family moments past. Hilarious. I immediately gave her a gold star. After the presentation we chatted. It turns out, the "Oy"er, Rachel Willen, is a student at the French Culinary Institute where Mr. Pepin is Dean of Special Programs. She writes a blog, "Mrs. Fabulous Goes to Culinary School" ( and plans to combine efforts with her nutritionist husband to retrain Americans to start cooking again, something she thinks will go a long way toward solving the obesity problem.

"Our generation of women has looked at cooking as domestic drudgery when really it is zen, meditative, a chance to connect," Ms. Willen said. As a result, she said, "they are saying we are the first generation who will have a shorter lifespan because of major diseases driven by things like high fructose corn syrup." She shook her head. "Cooking has become a spectator sport, where we allow someone to come in to our home, a TV personality, someone who's cooking but yet we can't smell anything..." Sad. Something's gotta give.

I gave a gold star to Mr. Pepin for the 26 books and 11 cooking series he has created since the 50s to help Americans fight their fears of cooking. I had him sign a photograph for my friend and Brookvin Chef, Dave, who had told me he had been inspired by Mr. Pepin.

Downstairs, at the cookoff, I met Jamie Brown Miller, a home chef from Napa, California who, she told me, had been flown to three cook-off finals since first starting to seek out cook-offs at this past September.

"What did we do before the Internet?" I wondered aloud. She told me she had been one of the first to have the Internet, the daughter of a Silicon Valley technology exec. But, she said, "I'm done with technology, that's why I cook...I kick out everyone from the kitchen, although I let the dog hang out, and I just get to chopping. It's so relaxing."

Of course, I gave her a gold star and good luck, though I found out later that she lost, her excellent Rosemary Duck Cassoulet, while delicious, apparently not as popular among the judges as Sara Freedman-Izquierdo's Mandarin Dumpling Soup.

I spoke to Manishewitz Co. CEO David Yale and commended him for the event, for his efforts to come out with a no-MSG broth.

"I know how hard it is for you, as a marketer, to come up with products people will actually buy, to get people to make the changes to their palates necessary to appreciate better-for-you flavors," I said, remembering a decade's worth of articles I wrote on the subject as a packaged-goods reporter for Ad Age. "People need help."

He nodded. "They do," he said, "they do..."

Looking around at the event, talking to people, there are clearly a lot of people trying to be part of the solution. Gold stars to them all...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Feeding the Soul

A delivery guy with a hand cart wheeled his boxes in front of me and let out a low whistle and some incoherent but clearly complimentary words for the woman just ahead of me. I laughed.

"You like her?" I asked provocatively. Why not? He was being so obvious, it was clearly no secret, his interest, his intentions. He smiled as he pushed his products closer toward the Italian market and looked me up and down appreciatively.

"Hey, I like you too..." he said, pursing his lips sexily. At this, I threw back my head and let out a very loud guffaw as I continued past.

"You're not picky, huh?" I asked.

He shook his head. "Can't be picky in this lifetime, Sweetie," he said.

I was in a hurry and he had his hands full, otherwise I would have given him a star, maybe two or three. I don't know what it is about guys like this that crack me up, that make me laugh long after the exchange is over. I guess it really just boils down to honesty and their clear desire to do whatever it takes to feel good.

We are, all of us, hiding so many of our thoughts and emotions behind a mask of compusure commensurate with how badly we want to fit societal norms. It is, often, so boring. I really want to know what people think. Often, because people know this about me, they will tell me, they will let loose something they think will shock and surprise me. Very little does. I don't know why. I guess I've been alive a long enough while, read enough books and, instinctively, I just know that some of our base animal ways are bound to take over if we are at all honest and let them.

I gave out a lot of stars yesterday as I toured around Soho with friends in from out of town on the most beautiful of March days in NYC. So many artists at work in various ways, from selling awesome rock photos at the Morrison Hotel Gallery ( to creating kick-ass t-shirts at a street booth( to alerting visitors to the New Museum's new Skin Fruit exhibit to "not miss" a short movie on the stairwell between floors 2 and 3.

I'm glad I didn't miss that movie. Disturbing as it was, the explicit clay-mation depiction of a naked big-breasted woman wrestling around with many naked people trying to climb inside her was, like the New Museum itself, thought-provoking at the very least. I think, really, it was mind-blowing, this 6-minute film from Nathalie Djurberg, It's the Mother. I don't know if my guests agreed.

It just so happens, though, that I had posited the theory the other day that all of us, really, spend our lives trying to find a way back to the comfort we found in our mother's womb. It is not an easy get. Despite the relative ease in which Ms. Djurberg's clay creatures were able to crawl through the Mother in question's gaping hole, once in, grown, they were too big, it was too crowded, limbs went everywhere. It really didn't seem the solution people were looking for.

Down the stairs, into the next room, another possible answer was posited: a crucifixion. Pawel Athamer's Schedule of the Crucifix, provides a ready-made set for a daily Savior, complete with a ladder for an actor who comes in every day at 3:00 to climb up in his loincloth, sit on the bicycle seat, rest his feet on a foot rest, strap down his shoulders and grab the handles. Voila! Maybe THEN people will feel better...Again, though, no guarantees. The beauty of art and artistic endeavor is that one can explore these themes of what might and might not work, offer food for thought without actually coming up with definitive answers.

I pondered this over some delicious truffled cheese fries, a Chinois salad with grilled shrimp and a great glass of white wine. Hmmm. Maybe, in the end, food is what makes us feel better...

Monday, March 15, 2010


The worst has happened! OK, OK, to be fair, there is world hunger, poverty, child many things that are worse than what I'm about to share. But, in my world, right now, the discontinuation of my pretty puffy glittery gold stars is possibly the worst news possible! Yes, indeed, Nicole Crafts, the maker of my Glitzers gold stars, "dropped this item from our inventory in February of this year due to lack of demand..." said Suzanne M. Manzi, who responded to my desperate on-line plea to please tell me that I could still get stars.

I first heard tell of the possibility of discontinuation from my friend at the 7th Ave. Art Supplies store, who looked plagued when I popped in the other day to pick up my order, a 12-pack I had been waiting for for a week. "I have bad news..." she started. A woman in the store looked at her face, then at mine and quickly left the store, afraid.

"What??" I said, my stomach dropping, knowing this was the second week in a row she had been unable to get the stars. I was down to just little packages of leftover small stars floating around my house. I needed new packs, fresh new big ones to present proudly to deserving recipients.

"My rep can't get them..." she said, looking sad for me. "But," she said hopefully, "maybe it's just not popular around here? I have to check and see..." It was clear. We both guessed at the truth: only teachers bought these stars, teachers and me. And there was less and less money for teachers to spend on things like seemingly silly stars, less and less money being spent on seemingly "extra" rewards, especially these fancy pretty ones that stick strong, that last, their glitter adding a great glow to a moment, a day, a week, a life.

I cannot let this go without a fight. I have had too many people tell me these stars have lifted their spirits, that they needed just this, I see too many people wear their stars for months on end or put them in a place where, they tell me, it works again and again to remind them that they are deserving, that all their hard work at whatever they're trying is not for naught. This, I wholeheartedly passionately believe, is incredibly important.


I am calling for all gold star receivers past or those hopeful to get them or give them in the future to pick up their pens or, more likely, press on their keyboards to tell Nicole Crafts how important this is, how much a little gold star can mean! I need you all to stand up and help me take a stand against the discontinuation of a necessary item, one I have been too lazy to tell the world about but that, now, out of necessity, out of which most good things are borne, I am finally ready to fight to preserve. It is no small thing, a star, even the small ones.

My own single explanation that I "bring a bit of bright light to people unexpectedly just for trying..." apparently did little to excite Ms. Manzi and make her reconsider. But her explanation, the "lack of demand..." for the gold stars gives me the goosing I have needed to get off my ass and fight. I know she is right, sales numbers say it all, of course, and intuition told me that gold stars were on the wane, that's why I've been giving them out fast and furiously! This is the problem! We aren't seeing each other, we aren't rewarding each other! This needs to change!

This is my plan, you're hearing it here first: please write to Ms. Manzi, inundate her in-box at We have to get her attention. There have to be more stars. People need them. This is on the order of a national emergency. Maybe I will even alert Obama. I think it is time that people know: gold stars are not being given, and that is just wrong.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Fight Your Fears: Host a Party!!!

I love the synchronicity that my daily Tarot card often offers. Today, for example, I was already all set to write about the need for people to connect, to get over their many fears about getting together, about entertaining, because of the crucial importance of overcoming those seemingly insurmountable hurdles of what to wear, what to serve, how exactly to do it. And then, strangely enough, the Tarot turned up The Hermit Reversed card, calling for the need to "seek out others and be social...find the light inside and share it with others."

I am always looking for ways to do just that, I am always throwing parties. Give me any excuse. I now have a constant stream of young French people in my home always happy to share good food and wine. I love it. And I have over the last few years alone thrown jewelry parties, cooking classes, a book party, MANY kids' birthday parties and, even, last year around this time, simply a Winter Wake-Up. Now, as synchronicity would have it, I am putting together a pilot for a web-based show that will attempt people to do just what I have done and do, to get up the gumption and gather the resources to help people connect. I would argue, like excercise after a certain age, it is no longer an option, it is imperative: We have to connect.

We have to get out from in front of screens (after you finish reading my blog, of course) and make time to meet up with real people face to face. Maybe not all the time, but most of the time, these events offer solace, soothing to whatever is plaguing you. You can talk about the things you think are unique to you alone and find that others feel them to, or you can just bond over something simple, like how good the pan-fried kale tastes with just a hint of lemon and garlic, yum. Or, over how good a necklace looks on a friend...

The other night, I attended a party for a home-jewelry brand, Lia Sophia, that has grown exponentially over the last few years on the basis of helping women find both an income and a social outlet. The company was started by Tory Kiam, son of legendary Remington pitchman Victor Kiam, who was looking for a new way to reach women in a way that would really resonate. He named it after his two daughters, Lia and Sophia, who he imagines will take over someday as the third generation of entrepreneurs. Look, I see it all around me: it is hard to be a hostess. One friend in the neighborhood who has a blog, The Undomesticated Me, just recently threw her first dinner party at, I don't know her age exactly but I would put her at roughly 40?

Mr. Kiam has made a killing offering women an opportunity to become a Hostess for a one-time $149 fee, engaging 29,000 women in the U.S. to sell his line of jewelry to a whopping 6 million customers. That is a lot of socializing. That is awesome. I was too wrapped up in conversation to remember to give him a big gold star, but I'll give him one, even if it has to be digitally. It's great when you can marry commerce with your convictions. It is the best thing, what I hope to do with my new show.

Standing in a beautiful room overlooking the Hudson River and all the lights of New Jersey, I was so excited. "I love it!" I said about his company, and not just because I was going to get a piece of free jewelry. "I actually wrote a story when still at Advertising Age, years ago, about the important rise of the home party for young mothers who want to shop with their friends but don't have the time! I actually throw those kinds of parties a lot, like a jewelry party I've done for a friend two years running...It's great, so necessary for people to connect."

He smiled and nodded. "In urban environments, often, people don't have the room, but in suburban and rural environments especially, young moms want excuses to get together with friends," he said. Of course, as I found with my own less-well-attended jewelry party this past holiday, average sales at individual parties have declined a bit from their former high at $700 as the economy has faltered and, Mr. Kiam acknowledged honestly, "people don't want to put friends in an awkward position..."

That said, though, sales are still going strong and hostesses sign up newly all the time, getting up the nerve to push friends to come out and gather face to face, to maybe buy a piece of pretty jewelry that, especially under $100, is a great way to spruce up the old outfits you are stuck with 'cause you can't afford new ones.

I give a lot of credit to these ladies, to Trish, one of Mr. Kiam's advisors, who brings a lot of people together and has built a great business, selling $250,000 a year. It might just be that the lure of making money might help a lot of ladies get over their fear of becoming a hostess. And that, as my Tarot suggests, is a very, very, VERY good thing!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Getting the Gold

I held an Oscar award last night. It was heavier than I thought. I guess, though, really, I have never thought about heavy it would be, have never imagined I would really hold one. It's funny, this year, that I got to. It was just because a friend works for the company that produced The New Tenants, the fabulous short that won the Gold. But still. This year, more, maybe, than any other year, the Oscars gave me angst. I actually felt envious of the creative people that put these pieces together, less because they won than that they were even in the running, that they had completed something a whole host of pretty talented people held up in praise. Man, that must be nice.

I am in the midst of many projects, far from completing most of them. Beginnings, middles, even endings are hard. It is challenging to push past the hurdles at every stage, the ones that often seem insurmountable. They aren't, of course, they just feel that way. But watching the Academy Awards this year, I realized how many people actually see projects to completion, how hard so many people are working to push past their anxiety and all the problems that collaboration can bring. They all deserve gold just for that. I thought next year I should push my way onto the red carpet, past the paparazzi, and give out gold stars to everyone. Wouldn't that be nice? It must be really hard to get out of those limos into the limelight, to walk down the carpet and be besieged or ignored, both have their pluses and minuses. All the money in the world does not guarantee you look great, 'cause so much of looking great is about feeling great and I imagine that is a challenge under so much pressure.

That said, I'd like to be there someday, maybe giving out gold stars, maybe receiving a Gold statue, either way. It is amazing to behold all the creative talent that has to get pooled to make these projects happen, how many people have to work for free in the hopes that winning such a prestigious award might get them noticed and, hence, paid. Of course, there are so many stars that make the big bucks already, that get paid handsomely for their work. But the crews that they work with are usually full of people getting their first shot, people who were pulled out of obscurity and offered a shot at fame and fortune.

I think my favorite acceptance speech was Jeff Bridges'. Always seeming totally stoned, Mr. Bridges appears completely genuine with his amazing blue eyes and with his words. We made fun of him for adding, "Man..." to everything but I feel like that is what I would do. It must just be so powerful to get the opportunity to thank so many people who have surrounded you for a special, award-winning project, to let the whole world know what that might be like. At one point, he thanked the director of the film, "for giving us all the self-confidence we needed to do what we do..." The quote might not be exact, it should probably be paraphrased but that I don't think paraphrasing is as powerful. I loved that he said that, though. It goes exactly at the point of why I feel giving out gold stars to those on the red carpet is important: even if you're very, very talented, even if you're very, very, rich, even if you're very, very famous, Man, it feels really really nice for someone to tell you how awesome you are. It's not just nice, though. Man, it's necessary. Someday I'd love to give Mr. Bridges a big gold star. I can just picture his mirthful eyes receiving it gratefully. He needs it as much as the rest of us, even though he has a big, heavy gold statue on his mantle.

Monday, March 8, 2010

On a Scale of 1-10, Am I Happy?

It was perfect. Here I was feeling sorry for myself for no reason, a sure sign of genetic depression I've been warned (PLEASE!) and who should come right into my home, through my land line, but a Gallup pollster to pose to me the question, straight up, "On a scale of 1-10, picturing it as a ladder where 10 is the top and 1 is the bottom, how good would you say your life is?"

I wasn't sure I heard him right. I had agreed to answer some questions just 'cause I was curious, but really? First off? Rating my life overall? I laughed. "Wow, that's amazing?! Are you really asking me that?" I was making pasta with chicken sausage and leeks, I hadn't really been paying attention.

"Yes," he said, all seriousness, repeating the question, "How good would you say your life is? 1-10."

Me being me, it was hard to give the simple number he needed. I needed to explain. I thought about it, I think about it all the time, it's what I write about every day, except when I'm too busy thinking to even write.

"Look," I said, "I, very arguably, have a very good life. But I wasn't feeling it today particularly, I wasn't in great spirits. I know I should be more grateful, so I'll do this: even though it should be higher, but I currently feel like it's actually lower, I'll give it a 7."

This was awesome. Someone called, out of the blue, and was asking straight out how happy I was with my lot. He asked me not just how happy I was now but, also, how happy I expected to be in five years. "10, definitely a 10," I said, ever hopeful.

He asked me if I was healthy, if I had enough money, if I had a job, how respected I felt by superiors in my job, if I was married, if I liked the place where I lived, where I banked and how I liked it (?), what I thought about America's economy overall...I was rarely on the receiving end of so many questions. I tried to be honest, but, really, how can you be? Some of these, most of them, are not simple 'yeses' or 'nos' or a distinct number. Don't we feel different from moment to moment? Day to day?

As it turns out, I was one of the 1,000 calls made every day to Americans as part of The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index (, a 25-year-effort to measure America's health and well-being daily, a poll that is the self-proclaimed "voice of Americans and the most ambitious effort ever undertaken to measure what people believe constitutes a good life."

Funny, as I got off, finally, finished with the exhausting out-of-the-blue summarization and statistical analysis of my life, I offered the guy a verbal gold star, told him maybe we could dovetail our efforts. After all, I said, "if you find out people rate their life a 3 or less, maybe you could give them a gold star? Help them be happier?"

Happy shmappy. There is a debate raging in this country right now, exhibited on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, about whether or not "happiness" is a good thing. Gretchen Rubin's "The Happiness Project" attempts to suggest that happiness is as happiness does, that acting out little maxims like "be yourself" and "acting the way you want to feel" will lead to this seemingly elusive thing called 'happiness.' Meanwhile, Eric G. Wilson's "Against Happiness" rails that the whole American notion of making people 'happy,' through self-help mantras and anti-depressives and the lot, is actually what's killing our creative spirit: maybe we're not meant to be 'happy.'

I have to laugh. I listened to people today in lines where I waited patiently. I wait more patiently now, taking it as time to sniff out potential gold-star receivers. I listened, first, to the cook at Naidre's talk about his need for sleep since working a full day there the day before, then catering an Oscar party, then returning to work for another full day. I listened to the woman at the checkout at Costco in her pretty turquoise scarf talk about how she was hungry. She had worked all morning at her other job, at the hospital, and was going to be on 'til 10:30. Strangely enough, I didn't think to ask either of them, "Are you happy?" or "Do you like your lot?" They smile, they laugh, they joke around with colleagues and friends, they're real people, trying to make their way through their lives. I give them gold stars, no questions asked. I just want to recognize their efforts, their AWESOME no-wheat oatmeal raisin cookies, their speedy ring-ups and return of my credit card. I want them to know that someone notices but doesn't judge, that they are actually more than just statistics for government or commercial enterprise.

It is not research that I do every day, it is a reward, for both me and, I dare to hope, for those that receive the stars. It is an automatic now when I hear certain statements, certain epiphanies people make about themselves or their lot, that I reach into my bag for a star. Happy? Happy? One can only dare to hope that there are many moments of great ecstasy in life. But, in between, in between laundry and cleaning my white-painted wood floor, I have a lot of other feelings too, feelings often too ferocious to name without four-letter words. But, I dare say, that's life.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Failing to Fail is a Problem...

I am finally ready to fail. It's not a negative, I've decided, to fail. It's a positive. Like falling in an attempt to do a new pose in yoga or biting it on the ski slope, it is a sure sign of trying to reach a new level.

We are so often comfortable right where we are. We stay there out of complacency. "It's just fine here," we say to ourselves while knowing, in that deep, true part of our brains that we try to quiet that it's not what we really want, where we really dreamed we'd be if, in fact, we really let ourself dream. To be fair, information gathered over a lifetime can give one pause about dreams. Dreams come true can easily turn into nightmares, we see that every day on the covers of magazines that love to out the problems of the delebrities who have reached the pinnacle of what they's desperately hoped for only to find misery at the top. "Be careful what you wish for..." my mother always warned.

But you can't be too careful or you will stop wishing altogether. I have, of late, begun cautiously wishing for things and working toward them, knowing that in doing so I might be terribly disappointed but that I will be able to deal with that disappointment. I have put together whole chapters that I have then had to trash, put together proposals that take months only to be told they didn't quite work. While being told to change even a word used to wreck me, I am stronger now. I finally understand personally that it is better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all and that trying is not just a one-time thing. It is constant, applied every day in a new way. Rejections will come often if you are actually ex/pending efforts.

I gave a gold star to a friend yesterday who is going with her gut and switching schools for her young son. She has grilled him, given him all the downside and still he has agreed. She is afraid he is doing it just to please her, but so be it. There is no way, now, of knowing the outcome. There will be drawbacks and great benefits to the decision, like all decisions. I sympathized. Change is hard, but you have to go forward and do those things that your strongest instincts tell you are the things that you have to do. Denial of those things will only lead to regret. We have to be brave enough to try. There is always a way out later, another change that can be made, you can always try something else.

What gets me is when people give up, when I give up, simply because the task at hand seems daunting. Like the story I have to edit, or like the bits of homework that my kids ask for help on only because they don't feel like thinking about it themselves. I try to prod the to do it themselves. I will not always be there, they have to build their own inner drive to push past the fear. All I can do is give them the tools, highest among them feeling good about themselves.

The other day, as Eli and I sat doing hebrew homework after school at Ladybird Bakery, we got on the subject of why a kid at school always acted out.

"He doesn't have the tools to express his frustrations, to feel that he can do things, maybe because people are always telling him about the things he does wrong, not the things he does well." I looked at Eli sadly "He maybe doesn't feel good about himself."

Eli nodded. "Well, I don't need anybody to tell me what I've done well, I feel good about myself," he said.

I could have cried. Now, to be fair, I've seen him flounder in moments, get defensive or push back. None of us feel good about ourselves all the time. But I love that he feels so strongly about feeling good about himself. It is no small thing. He may be ready, then, to face failure, a sure eventuality if he really tries. Trying, it turns out, demands a super strong dose of self-confidence. As with the Lion in the Wizard of Oz, it is all about inner belief: "I think I can, I think I can." I whisper that to myself often as I go through yet another round of trying.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Whether Or Not to Care About The Weather...

"Is this rain or snow?" a woman walking her dog outside my building asked as I rushed out this morning, late to drop off the kids at school, into the...Hmmm...What exactly was it? Could've been rain, could've been snow, could've been what the weathermen newly report as a "wintry mix." Did it matter?

I laughed. "Does it need a label?" I asked.

She shook her head. "No, but it's annoying."

We have had a fair share of snow this year, more than Montreal someone told me the other day. As I rushed along next to my new foul-weather friend, I noticed her fabulous furry boots.

"It shouldn't matter, you're definitely prepared with those boots..."

She looked down, kicked up her foot to take a good gander. "I bought them last year after the big snows..." she said.

It's a fact of life. Weather patterns change in a place from time to time, from year to year, from global warming or whatever else we don't quite understand but probably have some hand in. Family members in Arizona have been lamenting the lack of sunshine, the rainy 40 degrees. It's not supposed to be that way. My one sister has gone back there for the winter from the Seattle area, where that is to be expected. What can she do? It makes me think of a saying my Mom always said when we got disappointed by an unexpected outcome, weather or otherwise: "Man Proposes, God disposes..." There's a similar one, "You know how to make God laugh? Make a plan!"

Whether you are a believer or not, someone, something is certainly always having a joke at our expense when it comes to weather patterns. "Must be nice to have a job where you can be wrong more than half the time and still keep your job," someone said to me once about those who report on the weather. Poor bastards. Like doctors, they can only know what they can know, there are signs and symptoms but no sure thing until it happens.

But it's like this: we just have to deal. We have no choice, do we? It is a great opportunity to exert our flexibility muscles.

I dug a gold star out of my bag. "Here," I said, handing it to my precipitation figurer friend, "for trying to muddle through the weather, for putting up with it."

She took it with an excited gasp. "I get a gold star, yeah!" she said. She looked up at me with deep appreciation. "I'm going to have to put you down as one of the nicest people in the world..." she said.

I smiled. "Thank you," I said. Who cares about the weather when you can have awesome moments like this? It doesn't matter, it doesn't matter at all. I love bad weather, 'cause it so often brings people together, huddled close against the...rain, snow, whatever it is.