Thursday, April 29, 2010

Gold Star to Gardega for Selling Himself!

He sighed loudly as he sat down, again, on the bar stool next to me at Union Square Coffee Shop. He'd been sitting there for a while, the sigher. I'd noticed him only sidelong.

I looked up from my computer screen.

"Sorry," he said, though clearly he wasn't, not at all. "I had a really long day."

I smiled, recognizing a fellow chatterer when I saw one, and turned toward him on my stool. "Sorry," I apologized, knowing myself what one can feel like after a long day.

"No," he said, shaking his head, "it was a good long day...really productive."

I laughed. "Then I take back my sorry, and offer up congratulations instead."

He motioned at my computer, at the W. Somerset Maugham novel, The Painted Veil, open beside it. I hadn't been able to decide whether to read or write as I ate my amazing Sesame Chicken Salad, maybe my favorite meal in all of New York.

"Are you writing a book?" he asked.

I laughed. "Trying..."

He shook his head vehemently. "There is no trying, only doing..."

Ha. He had no idea what he was walking into with that line. I reached over and took out my stars.

"Well," I said, "it just so happens I reward people, just for trying." I handed him a gold star, not even knowing what he'd worked long and hard on all day, but knowing that, like me, like all of us, he was trying.

He took it happily, with a big smile and great enthusiasm. Turns out, he has been trying, very hard, and doing well, as an artist. Not an easy task, not at all. He has actually made it, he told me, onto Page Six. We talked about the idea of the successful artist, of how one seems a turncoat, a prostitute of sorts, just by making money at what one does, just by being rewarded monetarily. He was reconciling himself to the idea, though, since, he offered up, "Normally, I couldn't even afford a taco..."

What is wrong with selling one's art? With making money for one's passion projects? Why does it seem we have to feel ourselves "whores" for trying to make a living doing what we love? If prostitutes love what they do, all power to them.

It is a big subject recently, the artist as hustler. I have actually seen not one but TWO documentaries on the subject in the last year. The first, Con Artist, by filmmaker Michael Sladek, came out last year to tell the story of artist Mark Kostabi, an '80s Andy Warhol-like sensation, a real, talented artist who took his talent for determining what art collectors wanted as far as possible to great fame and fortune for a time.

Strangely enough, last Saturday night, as we sat waiting at Sunshine Cinemas for the start of Exit Through the Gift Shop, a documentary about street artist Banksy that also explores the great "con" of modern art, who should walk in but Mr. Kostabi himself? He sat on the other side of the theater and we didn't bother him, but it was an interesting case of serendipity.

So too was my sitting next to this fine artist, Alex Gardega (, himself struggling with the ascendance of his star, reconciling what's real. Certainly his daily toiling on beautiful, haunting images, in oils, in watercolor, in glass, is real, and is really worth something, worth a lot. Whether or not he ever makes it on to Page Six again...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Asking For What We Need

The best thing is beginning to happen: people are beginning to ask me for gold stars.

Yesterday morning, at Parco, a lovely man I chat with often, a human rights activist and professor, looked at me while we were talking about why I face in toward the cafe and he faces out, toward the street.

"It's just not the prettiest street..." I had said in explanation.

He had shrugged. "But it's still a street," he said and then his eyes lit up with thought and he motioned toward me.

"I know why I get my gold star," he said, as if he'd been wracking his brain to figure it since he walked in the door and saw me.

He told me then the story of how he took it upon himself to clear a junkyard behind his apartment that he had been staring at for far too long without his landlord or super doing anything.

"Slowly, I just cleared everything away, old bathtubs, all kinds of junk." He smiled proudly as he offered up that he had even used a machete, hacking away until all was clear. Now, in place of rusty rubble, he had found ground. He is building a garden.

"Wow!" I said, properly impressed, reaching for the gold star he had most certainly gained and giving it to him. "I love urban garden stories!" I said.

There is such beauty in the stories of beautification, of people taking the time to make the best of what they have, even if, as in this case, it doesn't belong to them. My friend's garden is not his own, it is a communal courtyard. But he has the key, his daughter now has a "green" club and his flowers, I am sure, will give joy to countless others. Including me, I hope. I will wait for the blossoms to push my invitation.

I loved that my cafe friend had looked at me and thought of himself, of what he'd done that he felt great about, and that he wanted to share it with me.

Yesterday afternoon, at Naidre's, one of my fave baristas similarly said when he saw me, first off, "I deserve a gold star today..."

He didn't launch into a particular story, but he had been standing on his feet all day, serving others with a smile, serving a new espresso variety he was telling people about with pride. Without knowing anything else, I knew that. And, more importantly, I loved that he knew that he was deserving of reward, no matter what it was he did. I gave him one happily.

That, of course, is the point of my project: that we, all of us, think every day about the myriad of things we do and think to ourselves: "Damn, at least I'm trying!" And, of course, we are. Even when it doesn't feel like we are, even when it seems like all we can do is breathe. Even that, especially that, should not be taken for granted. I once suggested to a friend in a conversation about what really mattered, what one had to say about oneself to prove to oneself and others that they were worthy, that his business cards might just say, right underneath his name, "Breathing." After all, it is this that matters most, no matter what else we might do. For that, if for nothing else, give yourself some gold!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Facing Time...Alone

I often see people rushing off to work as I sit, indecisively pondering what to write next, at one cafe or another, and I feel envious. Then I have to slap myself upside the head once or twice and remember. 'Remember Dummy," I say, to myself. "You always wished when you were rushing that you could be idle..."

Aaah, with the passage of time, memory fades, making whatever seems true in the moment absolutely and forever true. Or so it seems in the moment. To be fair, I have never desired to be aimless. I often defended the idle rich against their detractors, even when I was a 9-to-5-er (OK, any ex-colleagues, I know I never made it in before 10, 10:30...) I spent far too much time watching soap operas one after another on summer days to forget how absolutely incredibly boring it can to be bored, how hard it is to get up the gumption to get anything going when you don't absolutely have to.

It is funny. Yesterday, a rainy day where everything got cancelled and my family played hookie from having to do anything at all save staying home playing computer games (my husband and sons) and organizing (me), I picked up an old favorite book, Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift From The Sea. As I began to read, I related to it in a way I hadn't before. In it, Ms. Lindbergh, a writer, mother and wife of a man who made more than a living wage, wrote of the vagaries of modern feminism, the few thousand ways a woman can manage to fill her time that do not "feed the spirit."

She offered up the idea of taking oneself off to the beach or, as she acknowledged, for those whom such a thing is out of reach, to take oneself off even for an hour to avoid external distractions and find a creative source by which to tap the inner springs, the "true essence of themselves," she says, "which will be the indespensable center of a whole web of human relationships."

I can well identify. I am blessed enough not to have to be busy all the time, to take the time to think and write, time I do believe makes me calmer in the face of the hardest job, the job of raising human beings. But, then, too, the solitude can become all too much, the "consciousness" Ms. Lindbergh speaks of having been raised cracking one in the head, making one's life a meta world where one's existential to-do list is long, the actual one not so much.

Ms. Lindbergh acknowledged her own funny fate, 20 years after writing about the "gift" of solitude, that she, at the time, had no idea what sudden panic she would fly in to when real solitude came, when her children no longer relied on her as center.

It was from a completely different vantage point then that she agreed with her former self, two decades hence, that "woman must come of age by herself-she must find her true center alone," albeit, this time around, under more forced rather than stolen circumstances. I had to laugh. It is a struggle I see people, lots of people, wrestle with daily. Solitude can come when alone or in a crowd, as a parent or as a single person. It is something to be savored as much as possible, appreciated in its pure ability to force one to face what one must in order to go forward with others. But, man, sometimes it seems far better to keep busy.

I give Ms. Lindbergh a big gold star and credit for understanding as she did that her own search for meaning mirrored that of most women, if only they had the time to ponder it. Her own outpourings, seemingly navel-gazing to some, have helped more than a million people feel less alone in their looking. As a writer, such a thing is a great aspiration.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Gold Stars Remind Us to Feel Good

Gold stars have been flying out of my hands to people all around the last few days as I appreciate, from my own contemplation of how to feel good, the efforts of others to do the same.

Yesterday, I held the door for a neighbor walking in through the complicated two-door entry of my building with her bike.

As she navigated through with some degree of difficulty, she rolled her eyes. "It's such a pain to excercise," she said.

I laughed. "That's why I don't ride a bike, I just take myself out, walk or run or go to the gym," I said. "Bikes are great, but they're hard."

As she wheeled hers through yet a third door, toward the fourth, where she would try to place it among the mishmash of other bikes and strollers in our line, she shook her head. "They're HORRIBLE!"

I threw back my head and laughed. I loved the honesty of the response, that she hated to deal with the ramifications of bike-riding but that she'd done it anyway. That's life, right? Sometimes we just have to push through things, even things we find "horrible," to get to a potentially positive result. I gave her her gold star happily.

"Thank you, Stephanie," she said, looking at me gratefully. "This really makes me feel good."

That is the point, that is why I do what I do. I do not reach all that many with my blog, my fan base may be small, and I make no money. But hearing people tell me that the small sparkly star actually gives them even a moment of joy? That, truly, is the greatest reward.

I got that yesterday from a lady who had patiently let me back in line at Union Market when I had ducked away to grab beer for my husband, who was to be home with the kids while I went out.

"Thank you," I said, "Not everyone is so friendly..."

She smiled. "Well, it's only a matter of a minute."

I laughed. "Yes, but this is New York, it's a 'New York Minute.' "

She shrugged. "I'm feeling patient today."

I gave her a gold star on my way out, as she stepped up to the cashier.

"Thank you so much!" she said.

People ask me often if strangers think I'm strange, if they question why on earth I'm giving them a star. And the truth is, usually no. I get very few questions. True, I often wait until I am on my way out of a place to give the star, as I want to leave people thinking of the star itself and themselves rather than me, the star giver. But the looks on people's faces aren't usually quizzical, they're grateful. I think they actually do think in that moment of their own efforts, and of the star as their own reward. I am curious, often, what goes through people's minds in this regard, what they most wish to be rewarded for but aren't, but I mostly refrain from asking. It is none of my business unless people choose to share.

As I seek my own rewards I know that a gold star isn't everything, it can't possibly be. But it's a start and, I believe, a hopeful reminder, wherever one puts it, that every day, in little ways, we should all feel good about what we're doing, even if it's just taking the time and energy to take a bike ride or offering kindness to someone who keeps you waiting in a line.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Contemplating One's People

Religion is on my mind. I often wish it wasn't, but the idea of a higher being, a benevolent dictator above, something bigger than mere mortals, seems to be the topic du jour, nearly every jour:)

I am Jewish and, while I have never made this my sole identifier, I am what I am. Judaism rears up often as a theme, especially because my children are enrolled in Hebrew school. I am forced, then, to stand up and take notice of traditions and holidays I might otherwise ignore as I go about my daily life, a mostly secular life.

On Monday, for example, I was invited to join Eli's Hebrew school for a program to discuss Israel Independence Day. During the program, we discussed both sides of the Israel question, role-playing from the perspectives of an Israeli child and a Palestinian one, posing the question of how each side might feel. It was fascinating. Eli played the Palestinian and, asked how he might feel if people tried to take his homeland away, Eli put his hands together like a machine gun and puttered his lips rapid-fire, shooting away at me, the enemy. It was an instinct as true as any other, albeit a sad one.

"That is exactly how some people felt, feel," I said, acknowledging that anger in the region over the years has often led to violence, on both sides. As for me, my feelings from the perspective of an Israeli, I tapped into how, as a Jew, I am reminded constantly of the many instances in history in which my people have been likewise forced from their homes, and offered up how incredibly important it is both literally and philosophically that there is a place that will always take me in should I need someplace to go. Would that it hadn't meant and wouldn't currently mean kicking other people out of their homes.

It is not an easy problem to solve, surely. For Eli, though, it is. He raised his hand at one point and posed to the religious school head the question: "Why, if it's so obvious they should share the land, aren't they doing it?" Hmmm. Tough one to answer. It will take a lifetime and still, I fear, it won't be clear.

The role of Jews, in Israel and elsewhere, how they are regarded, the right and wrong of what Jews do, came up strongly on Tuesday when I was invited to Shearith Israel on the Upper West Side, the oldest temple in America, founded in 1654, to celebrate the fact that May is Jewish American Heritage Month. It is a month proclaimed by President Bush in 2006 as a time to recognize the contributions Jews have made over their 350 years on American soil.

Esti Berkowitz, a fellow writer of a blog called Primetime Parenting, offered up the age old idea that Jews "start often from nothing, without resources, and have the ability to pick up the pieces and move on." She pointed to Ruth Handler, one of 10 children of poor immigrant parents, who invented Barbie, and to others, like jeans inventor Levi Strauss and Albert Einstein. Photos of successful Jews hung in posters around the room and Rabbi Hayyim Angel spoke highly of the 23 original founders of Shearith Israel who were instrumental at building the biggest most successful Jewish community in the world, in New York City. Jews from everywhere descend on the temple daily, he told me, to learn about their heritage in America. I gave him a gold star for his efforts helping people figure themselves through their people's history.

It has always been a dilemma for me, presenting anyone's history, including my own, in only the most positive light. Of course, there are always blights. Like Woody Allen, arguably the face of New York Jewry to many, I always wonder what people would really say if they were telling the whole truth, nothing but the truth. But the proud accomplishments of a people, even amidst many who might otherwise give the group a bad name, is important. And, of course, building Jewish pride is a year-round job, not just during Jewish American Heritage Month, the efforts for which are chronicled at A friend recently told me she has been invited to attend an invitation-only summit of Jewish tastemaker types called Reboot, held annually outside Park City, Utah, to discuss ways in which modern Jews are held up in the media, in movies, across all creative fronts. I am interested to hear what she learns from the experience, how her many projects might reflect her Jewish heritage in some new way.

It is funny because I do not think of myself as Jewish above all else but I have encountered others who, upon learning that I am Jewish, see only that. I understand it is an important thing to understand, one's heritage, and that, no matter what, no matter whether you want it to or not, your religion, your culture, your background has bearing on who you are, on who you become, on how others view you. It is the reason, I suppose, that I am teaching my children about their heritage, albeit, hopefully, with an eye on how they might feel if they were born under different circumstances.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Appreciating Art

The photograph had pulled at me from the moment I turned the corner and saw it, at an auction a few months back. I had laughed immediately on spying it, kept going back, enjoyed watching others look at it with laughter, shock, pure surprise. After a bit, I wrote my bid and circled back often to make sure I was still the highest bidder. I was. There were not too many bids that night, starving artists far outnumbering business types who might be able to place even a reasonable bid. I went home with my photograph of the large man, naked on a seesaw, laughing, laughing at death.

In the time since, the photograph has turned into a bell-weather of sorts to help me determine the different ways people deal with the idea of mortality. My six-year-old at first refused to be in the same room with the photograph, crying in fear. I had to hide it behind the curtain in my room for a bit. He had to know where it was. But he has come a long way, now pointing at it in its place of honor in the living room, well lit with a spotlight, and laughing at it with his friends. I felt a little bad at first but now I am pleased as punch. It is a lesson well learned early, I believe, that of being able to face one’s eventual demise straight in the face and guffaw. What else can we do but laugh?

It is a lesson the wonderful photographer did in fact himself learn early. I went with my friend to meet Arturo Toulinov in his small studio in a converted warehouse building filled with artists right off the Hudson one day a few weeks ago, snuck in to shake his hand and that of his partner, Carol, while they were in the midst of a shoot of a man in a robe with a sickle and a skull. I gave them gold stars for taking the photo that so aptly captured facing fear in such a funny joyous way. Shortly afterward, the two invited me to return for longer to chat and see a variety of other photographs Art has taken exploring the not-easy topics of death and religion. I took them up on their offer last week with my mother in tow.

The gold stars I’d given them were on the front door. We were like old friends, sitting drinking sweet tea in their studio, the spring air flooding through their window as we explored how Art had come to this place, to creating this amazing inspirational art.

His subject matter was explained early on: he had had a twin brother who passed away as an infant, forcing Art to think long and hard on the subject from a tender age. He is not regretful of the experience, quite the opposite, which is why he plays with it in his photography.

“To live aware of your death makes you live better…” he said. “When we walk, every step we get, we get closer.” He finds beauty in facing that head on in a way, it seems, few people do. He captures the idea so magically in his current series, which follows in the ancient artistic tradition of Memento Mori, or Remember Your Death. Other images include that of a muscle-bound Mormon missionary, also naked, bending low behind a wagon wheel, just behind the skeleton, conveying again, he said, that “death is just one step ahead of us.”

Art’s broad smile and sparkly eyes belie the seeming difficulty of his subject matter. He is well versed in difficulty. After emigrating from Russia, where he was a lawyer, he began his career as a photographer in 1993 shooting models and actors, then went the full opposite route, spending 5 ½ years photographing the homeless.

“They have so much humility, they are so humble, they don’t have masks,” he said, shaking his head in memory at his subjects, the casualties of capitalism gone awry. “You play classical music and they listen, they talk about their childhood, their grandmothers. I would be forced to remember, they had lives before this, they recognized Bach.”

Art has a piece in the Brooklyn Museum and relationships with gallery owners for whom, he said, “I’m like a strange pet in the zoo.” He laughed. “Really, though, they’re nice. They pet me and encourage me…”

The issue for him, like so many bright talented artists in New York and beyond, is that, he said, “marketing means nothing to me. All I need are cigarettes, a six pack and $20 to invite you to coffee.”

I laughed and asked him to repeat himself.

“How much for coffee?” I asked.

He smiled. “$20. You might want a Machiatto…”

More than marketing himself or making it big, Art is sincere, Carol his muse and sincere supporter, strong in her own right as a writer. He is staunch in his stance that “Every day, I just have to justify the day for my Mom, for my brother, for my kids who live away from me, in Russia, and ask why did I emigrate?" How does he justify his days?

“I have the right to express my feelings,” he said. And he does, pushing people with his photographs not to be afraid, not to play it too safe, to question the status quo. Sometimes, he says, he will take a picture that is particularly charged with political or religious messages, something people don’t feel is right, people like his mother, may she rest in peace, and he will just put it away, in a drawer. He showed me some of those images. They shouldn’t be in a drawer.

“Remember?” I suggest, “9-11, Never Forget?” Too often, people want to forget. His images of swastikas and slaves and Jews and Palestinians as the same maybe will break through, maybe will save some people from such travesties happening again, happening still. One can only hope.

Art’s body of work is fabulously fearless, an inspiration to all of us to face things head on. I, for one, an owner of one of these great works, am appreciative he has put aside the pursuit of the law for making art. I gave him and Carol both big gold stars they could add to their door. They are, indeed, four-star worthy. Actually, they’re worth much much more.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Why Whine?

Monday mornings in the spring around here bring a litany of my-weekend-was-worse-than-yours rants from over-taxed mothers. I started laughing the other day, outside the school, as the competition raged. One mother of three sounded as if she was singing her own rendition of the 12 Days of Christmas...

"Three baseball games, two soccer matches and a birthday party too!"

I gave her a gold star, of course. There is something about these rants that makes Park Slope both enviable (it was, after all, recently voted top New York neighborhood in New York magazine) and loathsome. See, we are lucky to have such bounty to bitch about, we are lucky to be so burdened. And our kids are lucky too. But, yet, scheduling is a challenge. The brass tacks of building kids' strength, confidence and social skills in a myriad of ways makes for a very tiring couple of days.

"At least it's Friday," Geordie said to me this morning. I just looked at him as I put the cupcakes into the oven for Eli's class birthday.

"Weekends are more stressful for me," I said, especially in the spring. Both boys have baseball and rugby, Eli has a birthday party, my Mom is in town...I start to feel overwhelmed, to make up my own 12 Days of Christmas rant, and then I remember: Oh, right. We are incredibly lucky.

Added to our weekend events will likely be a run over to the new YMCA at the Armory just a few blocks away. My friend Sandy who runs activities there reminded me yesterday of Saturday's Healthy Kids Day when I saw her outside Parco.

"There will be five bouncy castles!" she said, enthusiastic as usual.

My kids will love it, I'm sure. So, hopefully, will lots of other kids that live nearby, some of whom might not be so busy running from activity to activity planned by Type A parents of means. That, actually, is the point. The Y's Healthy Kids Day is a cross-country event expected to involve 800,000 attendees in an effort to encourage families to adopt healthier lifestyles, to "Put Play in Their Day."

It is easy to forget in the midst of our own busy weekends that plenty of people don't have the luxury of play, that their weekends are filled with work, running from job to job, and that their kids often, out of necessity not purposeful neglect, get left inside to entertain themselves however possible, to stay out of trouble. They do not always get the chance to get their necessary physical excercise.

I remember last year at this time when I was similarly planning Eli's birthday party, and I went to Radio Shack to pick up some things. I started talking to the cute, helpful kid behind the counter about the party, for which I was taking a bunch of Eli's friends on a hike into the park. I remember, and I think I wrote about it, that he said forlornly, "I've never been on a hike..."

"But you can go right here, in Prospect Park!" I said. I invited him along, but he had to work. I took his number but I got busy and never called. I should have. It is important to help urban people stuck in the concrete city, people fighting just to afford rent and food, remember to get excercise, to enjoy themselves, to play, in the park, in the Armory, wherever they can.

At the very least, even in the moments we can't help someone else remember, we can at least remember ourselves to appreciate all the time our own kids have to play. That is my mission for the weekend.

I am reminded, as I remind myself not to begin the rant, of a t-shirt I saw on a fellow parent recently and loved. It said WHINING with a big circle around it and a slash through it. No Whining. I told my friend about it and she laughed. "For the kids..." she said. I shook my head. "No," I said, "for us!" Park Slope parents, like ambitious parents everywhere, often need the reminder. I know I do.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Chosen, But for What?

I have no answers, only questions. But, lately, I'm beginning to think that's OK, I'm beginning to think that's all there is. In fact, I'm all of a sudden aware that even I, who seems to ask endless questions of myself and others, am not actually asking enough of the really hard questions. There are so many, though, and, often, the questions themselves--let alone the potential answers--are hard to face.

But paying attention, really probing beyond the surface, is so important. It is what will help us at least understand how we've arrived where we are if not exactly where to go next. We have to look around, to see what's underneath the surface. I give out a lot of gold stars to people I have realized are often much different than they appear, to people who so often want to serve in so many ways beyond their current role. Waiters are writers, baristas accountants or the greatest guitarists. Then, photographers really want to be actors, Wall St. guys dream of dumping it all to draw. It is hard to figure who to be, much as it seems simple as a kid. We all want to add value, to find out the meaning of why we’re here on earth. It's not so easy.

I have of late been looking up at the clock at exactly 11:11, placing important calls right as the ones band together. I have heard that it's a sign, my sister is convinced of it. I decided to google it for some information. The first thing I found on my search of "the meaning of 11:11" was from, which offered that seeing the numbers a lot means that one has been chosen to “pierce the veil of illusion,” that this person must "lead the way to the Greater Reality, to the Greater Love."

Cool, I thought. I was always the last to be chosen for dodge ball (I never paid attention enough to know when to avoid the ball)and I have never felt that being born Jewish, alone, should place me in the Chosen One category. Here is was, though, right on my screen: if I noticed 11:11, I was important. Of course, I've always believed I am meant to do that, to spread truth. Isn't that why I'm a writer? This is what I thought, and, then, I began to laugh at myself.

I’m not a pollster, since I don’t really believe so much in the power of what people say when pressed, unrelaxedly, into giving specific answers. But I believe if I were to poll people, most people, the people, certainly, reading these words, I would imagine everyone feels the same: that they were put on earth for a reason, a good reason. I think we spend our whole lives trying to figure what that it is. Some think about it more than others. Maybe, I often think about myself and others corroborate, that thinking is a luxury.

“Am I too hopeful about the idea of possibility?” I asked my husband the other morning we lay in bed in the earlier light of Spring. I don’t even know why I ask him. I know the answer. It is yes. I am forever hopeful that I will figure my reason for being, that others will too. It is why I try to reward all I can, why I want everyone everywhere to get a gold star. I love looking around noticing who people are really trying to be. Sometimes, it is so clear.

For example, one night a friend I hadn't seen in a bit showed up at dinner in a jacket and long beard, and something about him rang familiar.

“Hello Hemingway...” I said. He looked at me strangely. Apparently, I was dead on, that’s exactly who he was channeling, who he really wanted to be.

The other night I met a man, an actor and acting coach, who sat next to me listening to jazz at The Blue Note. After talking to him a bit, I said what I was thinking: “You look just like Aaron Eckhart,” I said. He blushed slightly. “Wow, thanks!” he said. Someone down the way offered up another suggestion of who he seemed to look like, but he was not nearly so pleased.

Later in the evening, after we had hung out for hours, he came clean. “My ex-girlfriend and I played a game where we would ask what celeb we would set each other up with. I always said Aaron Eckhart…” I smiled. Of course. I could see he was aiming to be him, clearly. Just as I saw the waiter I had watched at the gym, a guitarist and, now, video editor, and immediately called it out.

“Jake, from 16 candles…” I said.

He had blushed. “Wow, my wife is going to be really excited to hear that…” he said. Jake was, after all, the great dream man of a generation.

As for me, as for others seeing who I want to be, who I am modelling myself after, I heard not too long ago, "Barbra Streisand!" from an astute subway rider.

“Only in Funny Girl I hope…” I said smiling. I definitely want to be Barbara in that movie, strong, sexy--mostly for her personality-- and hilarious.

Recently, I got Carole King. I smiled then, too.

“Did you see Grace of My Heart?” I asked the man, a regular at our local bar, Brookvin, who my husband and I both adore talking to. He shook his head. It is, arguably, one of my favorite movies. I related so much to the lead character, played by Illeana Douglas. She is based on Ms. King, a prolific songwriter of the 60s and 70s. It chronicles her life, her many varied relationships, her efforts to write and sing and figure her way through with strength and creativity, her efforts to truly value her unique self and to help others see and value themselves.

I am not Ms. King, of course, just as nobody is anyone else but who they are. But in questioning who we want to be, who beyond the surface we might really be, it is great to have models. It is challenging, after all to figure our role, even if we might think we have been "chosen."

Monday, April 12, 2010

Can't We Both Be Awesome?

As I sat last Friday, trying to get some things done at Red Horse Cafe, the closest thing I have to an office, I looked up to see a cherub-faced blonde waving at me. She blew me a kiss. Nice. Her mother looked on, beaming.

"Wow," I said, "adorable."

The mom smiled. "She's very friendly..."

I laughed. "Although I'm sure I'm special..."

I gave gold stars to the little doll, who turned out to be about 19 months old, and to her mother for her good child-rearing, and to the woman sitting next to them, who had been chatting with them.

The mom smiled as she looked down at the star on her finger. "It's funny about the gold star," she said, "because she is so proud of herself when she does something, anything, like climb the stairs. I wasn't that proud of myself when I graduated college!" she laughed.

I shook my head sadly. "See, ideally, I think we start out that way, proud of ourselves, and then, only over time, as adults, we learn not to feel too proud, that it sounds too braggy to be proud of's so challenging."

I was thinking of my own kids, how hard it is to know what to say when they say they are the best at anything. Even if it is true, even if they win a game or a race or get chosen first for something, I want them to understand the position that puts other people in, how it might feel to be on the losing end. I want to teach them not to be insensitive and pompous but, at the same time, I want them to always feel proud of themselves, to feel good about their abilities and who they are in general. It is a quandary.

We are, by our very nature, comparitive and competitive. If we are great, for some reason, it seems always to be at the expense of someone else's greatness. I, for one, never understand why and, yet, I look back at my junior high yearbook and cringe that I am not on one of the pages that proclaims people Best Dressed, Funniest, Most Studious, etc. It cheers me that I won the overall Citizenship award at graduation, for which I still have my medal, but then I have to laugh at myself. What if I'd won nothing? What then? What if my kids win nothing? What if they are not the best? And, what if they are?

Little League baseball season started this past weekend and, with it, a flurry of frenetic activity, always threatened by the chance of rain. I hate team sports. I was not a good sport about walking in the Little League Parade down 7th Ave. My kids felt my lack of enthusiasm and matched it, exceeded it even with their own boredom and annoyance. We ditched out early to have brunch at Dizzy's Diner. It's not that I don't like to participate in things, to teach my kids that, sometimes, they have to be part of the pack. It's just that I have always balked at the idea of winners and losers, at 'us' versus 'them.' I cringe at the idea that, at the end of the game, someone is going to walk away feeling the least bit bad, even though they tried, maybe even tried their best. I hated playing soccer games even though I loved the sport. If my team won, I felt bad for the other team, if my team lost, I felt bad for my teammates, who, mostly, took it more seriously than I did and would be in a bad mood for hours if we didn't walk away the victors.

The baseball parade always reminds me, as I walk in the crush of "team spirit," that something is amiss in the way we do things, in the competitiveness with which we approach most things. Instead of playing together for mutual benefit, instead of being able to allow everyone to feel proud, we are always picking who can be proud, who is allowed, based on a set of criteria someone arbitrarily chooses. I guess that is why I have been accused, recently, of being a communist. And I guess I am, though my husband, Geordie, points out the problem with that when he quotes the Simpsons smartly about something that should work and doesn't: "In theory, communism works."

Inherently I understand that capitalism, which doesn't work too well in theory, certainly not in mine, actually does seem to work the best in practice because, sad to say, comparing and competing is in our very nature. It is survival of the fittest and, much as I fight against it, I know it is true. I suppose it is just something we have to mitigate in ourselves and in our children, to find a way to be proud but not to make others pay for our pride.

My kids play with this concept a lot. Take, for example, a little song that Oscar was repeating last night, composed by his brother Eli along with a little choreographed sashay:

"I'm awesome, I'm awesome, I'm awesome, uh huh... I'm awesome, I'm awesome, I'm awesome, uh huh. I'm awesome, I'm awesome, I'm awesome, uh huh...'Cause you're not."

Gulp. No one got a gold star for that one. As a reminder of how they should be thinking, there is a great piece of art on the wall of my kids' room, a print by local Park Slope painter Jonathan Blum, that I picked up when I first moved to the neighborhood at a street fair. Even though I had only one child then, the concept was solid and, now, it is a perfect reminder for two boys in one room. Featuring two dogs, both wearing crowns, it says: "Can't We Both Be Kings?" If only.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Bench Marks

It's easy to get lost in thought, to dither rather than do. This has been a week of dithering, recovering from family vacation, getting the projects I was working on before the break sorted in my head. Sitting outside Parco in the mornings, I have given out a fair number of gold stars to others pondering their own projects. It is not an easy task.

One woman, wearing a great red dress and wedges, paused slightly as my friend and I sat on the bench against the wall.

"Did you want to sit?" my friend asked her.

"Well...for just a minute," she said gratefully and pulled up a chair. Turns out she was on her way to a photo shoot for a book she is writing with her husband, a decorating book about how to make stuff yourself from what you find in the hardware store. She, like my friend and I, is trying to navigate the tricky world of self-promotion without selling out, to figure how to pay the mortgage and keep her kids fed while staying true to her ideals.

She shook her head at the coincidence of meeting us here, like minds, pondering the same problems. We didn't come up with any solutions, didn't solve the dilemma of how creative people in New York, freelancers whose calendars were not-too-long-ago filled with high-paying work for print magazines and other dying media, will now get paid. We'll have to leave that for Rupert Murdoch. But we brainstormed, we acknowledged each other's challenges and, somehow, for the moment, we felt we'd done something. At the very least, we'd made a connection. She walked away wearing her gold star, looking great, and waved, our new friend. Hopefully she will enter into our world again.

Yesterday, another beautiful day I started on the bench, the conversation with another regular turned to politics. I had asked him to summarize the paper for me, given that I never read it. It is too much, I'd rather get the synopsis through chat.

"Well," he said, "China may lower its currency..."

"Really?" I said. "Would they do it?"

"Well," he said, "if they don't, they're really screwing us..."

I laughed. "That's not why they'll do it. They'll only do it if them screwing us screws them." It is the theory of enlightened self-interest that I believe applies to people and governments everywhere. No one does anything, usually, that doesn't in some way benefit them. Making changes is hard and there has to be something in it for someone to get up the energy to do it, to try.

It's hard to know how exactly to trigger people to try. We talked a bit about this, about the idea of sanctions versus war (I vote for sanctions), and about how consultants are cropping up all over in this new economy, charging people for their ideas on how they might try better across all facets of life, both personal and professional.

"The problem," I said, "is that they charge you but, in the end, they're usually just repeating you back to you..."

He nodded. "And you still have to do the work."

I laughed. "Exactly." He had gone on his own recently, left corporate law for the freedom of practicing in shorts and a t-shirt from home. He had engaged a friend's life coach skills, which he said had helped him understand a bit more what he wanted and didn't want, even just because she read in his voice what he liked and didn't like about his old job.

I gave him a gold star when he got up to go, to drum up business, to help people with their various and sundry legal issues. It's not easy, the life of the self-employed. But it can be very, very rewarding. And the beauty is, you can sit on a bench meeting people far more often.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Seeing The Other Side

It was a long day with the kids in the park yesterday. Ten days and counting that Mommy, not school, has entertained and educated. I was feeling pretty surly. By the looks of it, behind me in line at Union Market, everyone else was too.

I turned back to the checkout girl, shaking my head. I have decided to embrace these girls, often surly themselves, with kindness and a smile rather than a snarky attitude. It has helped.

I leaned in. "How many people, would you say, come up here with a smile on their face?" I asked as she rung up my overpriced ground beef and peppers. It was taco night.

She stopped ringing and looked up, wracking her brain. "Hmmm..." she said.

"Percentage-wise?" I goosed her.

She shook her head. "Not many, that's for sure."

The checkout girl next door, who had barked at me that she "wasn't open!" piped in.

"People are mad," she said, "and they take it out on us!"

I dared not look behind me again as I pulled out my stars and handed them to all four cashiers with a smile.

"See, if people smiled more, if they were friendlier, you'd be friendlier back, right?" I asked. They all nodded, smiling now because of their stars, because one of "them," these miserable line-standers that walked up one by one with a snarl, had taken notice of their plight, noticed them not just the too-high numbers appearing on the register's screen as it sub-totalled.

I walked out more sure than ever about my Gold Star Project and the sentiment behind it, the sentiment that says that seeing people, really stopping and taking notice of their efforts, pays off in the end, for everyone.

After tacos, a family fave, I set out with the boys for the movies, to How To Tame A Dragon, in 3-D. My expectations were low, always a good way to go in. It didn't matter. Just seeing the boys slunk in their seats in rapt attention behind their big glasses was entertainment enough.

I often fall asleep in animated movies. I cannot help it. In this one, there was no chance of that. It was action-packed from the first moment on, and totally gripping. I even screamed, startled a couple of times when the dragons whipped around out of nowhere. The message was hard-hitting and clear, a really, really important one, one that reminded me very much of my earlier incident at Union Market: we have to get to know the enemy--in this case dragons--and, by doing so, we can figure them or, at the very least, fail to be able to kill them.

When, at the end, the young peacemaking Viking protagonist prevails, convincing his Viking leader father and the town to make dragons friends rather than foes, having felled the big beast they served, Oscar let out a big satisfied sigh.

"Aaaah," he said with a smile, "they're happy now..."

I started crying. I wish it were as simple as the movie made it seem. As we walked out, the themes were strong in the kids' minds: darkness versus light, understanding instead of matching violence with violence.

"How come all the dragons kept going back to feed that big dragon, Mommy?" Eli asked, "How come they didn't just fly away somewhere else?"

We had just been discussing World Wars that morning as Eli read one of his favorite books on presidents.

"Well," I said, "it's like with Hitler, why did people agree to do his bidding, to kill other people? He convinced them that they had to do that, that it was the right thing, the necessary thing to protect themselves."

As they seemed amenable, I went on, talking about how some people fought it, but that, sadly, Hitler, like many evil leaders before and after him, was able to make darkness prevail.

Eli stopped and turned to me on the sidewalk open-mouthed by the comparison. "Oh my God," he said, "you're right, it's exactly like World War II!"

Kudos to the makers of How to Tame A Dragon, to the writer. The lessons learned, in an entertaining way, were serious ones, ones that we as adults often forget: we are all of us in this together and time is too precious not to smile and see each other, to help each other through, all of us, on every side.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Attentions of Man

As I walked out of my apartment yesterday morning, to the gym, happy as a clam to get back to my routine, a couple was walking by. The man looked at me, then looked back, took a long head-to-toe gander, taking in the full affect of my spandex-pant/sweatshirt ensemble, my bed-head. He turned fully to continue staring as I passed. I smiled as I moved on: this is why I love Brooklyn, I thought. There is so much humanity here, so many people to take notice of you, even on mornings when little care has been taken with one's appearance. You're bound to get some kind of attention.

The same cannot be said of other places. Virginia, for example, offered far fewer opportunities for connection and attention. Take, for example, the older gentleman at the toll booth as we entered Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. A friendly gent, looking for friends, he asked, apropos of nothing, "You guys ice skate?"

Geordie laughed, like he was making a joke and didn't bite really.

"Aren't you wonderin' why I asked you that, 'bout ice skatin'?" he said.

"Um, sure," Geordie said, not quite convincingly. I peered around from the passenger side to see the face of the disembodied desperate voice.

"It's cuz I love to ice skate!" he said happily. "I'm gonna get me a new pair of skates and there's a rink right close to where I live, out by by next season..."

Geord smiled. "Great!" he said. I piped in too. "That's great!" I said. There was little left to say on the subject and we needed to get moving. As we did, it made me sad. This poor man has no one to talk to, no one to pay attention to him. Although, I suppose, a fair number of cars roll through. I imagine he stops them all for as long a period as they will allow.

He reminded me of another man, a farmer who works as a short-order cook at the cafe at the base of the mountain in the winter months. When I'd come in for an Americano for the second time during my stay, he looked at me quizzically. "Did you cut your hair? You had it up last time..."

We had spoken briefly, exchanged hellos, but, I supposed, he didn't see too many folks 'round these parts, during the short hours the place was open. He introduced himself, was obviously someone who loved to meet new people. He had a friend in Brooklyn he stayed with sometimes, he said, and loved it.

In Brooklyn it can be true, too, of course, that people live in isolation. But whenever I'm feeling the need for a little human contact, I have a wide variety of cafes and stores I can visit to shoot the breeze. Sitting outside at Colson's yesterday, I found myself embroiled in great conversation quickly with a woman I've met on occasion. Later, at Naidre's, conversation in line turned to the dangers of religion and the pathetic reality that there might never be peace in the Middle East. It is common that cafe lines turn into great group conversations with only the slightest provocation.

Some people, to be fair, find the press of humanity in a big city overwhelming. People that I spoke to in Virginia, who had moved to the lowly populated Nelson County from someplace larger, loved it. They loved, as one store owner put it, "just walking my land at night," the moon their only company.

I thought of that yesterday, driving Oscar to a birthday party at a bowling alley deeper into crazy-crowded Brooklyn. As we waited at a stop light, his impatience mounted.

"Come on! Go Mommy!" he yelled.

"It's red, Oscar," I said, impatient with his impatience. And then it occurred to me: we hadn't waited for stoplights in Nelson County. There was only one there, our brewery waitress had told us proudly, and that had not gone in without a fight.

I said this to Oscar, reminded him that his impatience was likely a result of not having had to wait at stoplights in Virginia, where there hadn't been any.

"Why not? Why do we have them here?" he asked.

I explained that there we were often alone on the road without another car in sight, a phenomenon that is rarely the case in traffic-filled Brooklyn.

"If there were no stoplights here, like if there were no air traffic controllers at airports, there would be chaos, cars crashing into each other..."

It is a concept I come to a lot living in a big city, with many others, the concept that things we don't like, rules we don't want to live by, are a necessary evil when it comes to running things smoothly for the masses. It is the downside of being thrown amongst so many others, that personal freedoms must be sacrificed for the greater good.

I have to admit that it was annoying waiting for those stoplights when we had known for a while the joys of driving straight through without stopping for long periods of time. But it is worth it, I think. As is waiting in the long lines at Naidre's or Union Market. As much as I might have my moments of misanthropy, may need to get away from the throngs for a day or three or five, I am only too happy to return, to look and be looked at by many others of my most beautiful species of man, by chance to speak to them and have them speak to me. In those interactions inlies immense possibility that I often cannot conjure alone.

As is typical upon my return home, a big gold star goes out to Brooklyn.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Visiting 'Ol Virginny

We were in the Virginia mountain-top retreat for six days. We arrived on Sunday afternoon in the fog, seeing the sign for Wintergreen in the mist only because it was huge and green. Otherwise, all we saw was white. I felt like I was in Heaven Can Wait, except Warren Beatty wasn’t with us. Darn.

We struggled to see the street signs that would tell us we had arrived at Ridges Road. Once there, unloading in the windstorm, our friends promised the view out of the many windows that now looked upon clouds and rain would open up, when the weather cleared, onto a spectacular mountain range. We weren’t sure how long we would have to wait. Luckily, it was only until the next morning, when the fog lifted slowly to reveal layers of mountain ridges the likes of which even I, an Arizona girl, have never seen. There were likenesses of the view in paintings all over the house but, of course, they couldn’t capture even nearly what it looked like to stare straight out at the waves of blue outlining, it seemed, the universe.

We have loved the people of Western Virginia. Their hospitality has been unparalleled and our expectations have been exceeded in terms of service and quality of goods every time, which is saying a lot for a group of spoiled New Yorkers. I gave a gold star to our waitress at the brewery we visited at the base of the mountain. Skiers having skied their last day, summer hikers not yet arrived, business was slow. But the sweet smiling girl didn’t show any upset, she just explained the different beer varieties with expertise and gave us great tips on where to go and what to do in this area from which she so proudly hailed.

“It’s beautiful here,” I said, looking out the restaurant’s big picture windows onto the valley and the green hills beyond on which picturesque houses sat shadowed by tall budding trees.

She smiled warmly, not tired herself of the views after 20-some-odd years. “It is beautiful,” she said. If she’s anything like my father or others like him in my native state, she will never tire of it. Looking at the mountains, for many, offers a solace that little else does. I can see that, for sure.

We went to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. We had been warned it would be stuffy, that our loud kids might be shushed. But we went anyway. Eli is obsessed with presidents, and was happy to impart his learned wisdom, correcting misinformation an adult had given me about Jefferson and Monroe having died on the same day.

“No, Mommy,” he said, reciting from the Book of Presidents he checked out three separate times from his school library. “It was Jefferson and Adams who died on the same day, on the fourth of July…” Turns out, Monroe also died on July 4, only in a different year. I might have learned all this once, many moons ago, but I did not recall any of it. That’s what’s nice about having no memory. Everything old is new again.

We eschewed the shuttle bus to hit the trail from the visitor’s center to the grounds of Monticello, hitting first upon Jefferson’s family cemetery in which he and his children and grandchildren are buried. A movie had told us that many of his children had died early, that only two had survived. Oscar pointed at little gravestones behind Jefferson’s own.

Quietly he said, “Those must be his children…”

As we walked up the hill, to the gardens, we stopped to chat with the gardener, who tended lovingly to a new weeping willow tree, planted to replace others that had been eroded by pests. Deer, too, are a problem, he said, because of the bountiful buffet laid out for them in the samples of the kinds of fruits and vegetables a household in the 1800s, high on a hill, had to grow to feed its many mouths, including 140 slaves that Jefferson wanted to free but felt he couldn’t. Dogs are placed next to the house to chase off the deer and one man is allowed to hunt them. Last year, he killed 66, the gardener said sheepishly. He was awesome. He said he wished he could follow us up over the hill to see our reaction to the amazing house. Like our waitress, like seemingly everyone in the area, he was so proud of what he did, the grounds he worked to preserve. He definitely deserved his gold star, he wore it proudly.

We wandered around among the newly planted vegetables and then into the underground rooms that house Jefferson’s ingenious modern-for-the-time kitchen, ice house, and wine-bottling and beer-brewing rooms. The kids wrote their names with a feather and ink.

As we toured the house with our inspired smiling guide, a woman who said over and over again how much there was to learn about Jefferson and Monticello, how much she herself learned every day, a picture of the president emerged clearly: he was curious. He wanted, obviously, to figure answers to everything. The guide told a story as we walked through his private apartment, past a little windowed solarium filled with flowers that I could happily have sat in forever. She said he had brought mockingbirds with him to France and noticed, once there, that the birds were making a strange new sound, a creaking kind of sound. He determined, with much figuring I imagine, that the new sound was a mocking of the sound of the ship they had taken to cross the Atlantic, the back-and-forth creaking of the ship’s planks. So cool. He wanted answers to everything and he solved a lot of problems by thinking of how things might be done differently. Eli’s favorite example was Jefferson’s creation of the swivel chair.

Sadly, Jefferson couldn’t solve the slave issue, left it, the film had told us, to future generations to fix. But he set the stage for personal freedom with the Declaration of Independence and with philosophies such as the separation of church and state that sought to end tyranny over thought, to leave people alone to ponder their own God. He was not wise in the ways of money, signing for others’ loans, often helping others at the expense of himself and his own family, developing debts that his grandchildren apparently paid off. He was a major thinker, Jefferson, money was just a tool, a means rather than an end. Our guide, who Oscar whispered to me to give a gold star, was mesmerized by the many ways in which Jefferson’s brilliant mind created solutions for societal ills we still deal with today.

We sometimes eschew these solutions, like personal freedoms, because we are afraid, because we don’t know how to inspire people to want to work hard, to believe in themselves. But Jefferson obviously believed in people and empowered them. He started the University of Virginia, which we saw in the distance from the decks he built off the sides of his house, probably decks he built on which to ponder. It is obvious here, in this area, that Jefferson’s legacy of pride and curiosity still lives strong. It is impressive. A big gold star for Virginia, at least these parts.