Thursday, May 27, 2010

Nearer to Calm Now Thanks to She

I go to yoga to get balanced, to find some sense of inner calm that might help me get through the day or, in my case, since I only do it on Thursdays, through the week.

I arrived ready to get to a great place, readiness being the necessary state for a practice to potentially actually work. Outside Jaya, the studio where I go, an amazing aroma invaded my nostrils.

"What is that?" I asked. A woman I had seen relaxing and elongating near me many times offered that the scent was hers, a combination of essential oils including Vetiver, lavendar and chamomile.

Turns out, creating such intoxicating aromas is what she, Laura Kauffmann, does, through a company she created called She.

"From the first moment of opening the bottle it immediately has a calming affect," she explained of the mix that had moved me, that she promised to make me for the following week.

Not that dabbing essential oils could replace yoga (and who would want to) but Laura is working to create aromatherapy to enhance the affects of a good yoga practice, aromas that are based in the philosophy of Chinese Medicine.

In class, our teacher, Judy, offered up today the question from Rebecca Sonit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost, "How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is unknown to you?"

I thought about it. There are so many ways, not least of which is gaining calm and focus through the nasal passages. I often remark on the scents of those around me, will do anything in the urban setting to ensure that the more noxious of fumes don't overwhelm the nicer ones. My new She essential oils should help...

And that's why I gave Laura a gold star!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Indomitable Force: Annabelle

She ran in, a blur of orange and bright sunny yellow. She ran directly for the fridge in her happy yellow sandals, opened it right up and grabbed her juice box. This was a girl with a plan. I smiled and stared at her beautiful bun, her sassy outfit and her sweet smile. Every pair of eyes in Red Horse were on her. I looked up at her mother, at the ATM, perfect in her striped dress and amazingly matched shoes, pregnant and fabulous even in the heat.

"Wow," I said. "She's amazing." She smiled a smile that said, "it's hard to mother amazing..."

When I went to sit outside, Annabelle joined me and we chatted a bit, about her booboos ("I fell," she admitted) and other things of importance to a three-year-old. Her blue eyes stared in awe at my gold stars. I happily gave her lots of them, and the one more she wanted after that.

Her mom shook her head at her audacity, her stubbornness. I just smiled. "It's a pain now, for you," I said, "but it will serve her well in life."

No doubt, Annabelle is going places and her mom, Jessica, is helping her along, putting her own fears aside to help her awesome daughter gain crucial independence, to learn to trust in her own awesomeness.

And that's why I gave Annabelle and Jessica their stars. And why I'm thinking of hiring Annabelle as my new publicist...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

When I met Eric, he told me he was a carpenter. My eyes lit up.

“Ooh,” I said with a glint in my eye. I had already put him to work on many projects in my mind. I told him as much, began to fantasize out loud about the bookshelves I wanted built for my bedroom.

He put up his hand to stop me mid-stream and shrugged. “I mostly take people to IKEA, help them pick something out and put it together. It costs less, it’s less work…I might not make as much but it’s faster.” He smiled sheepishly in a way I have now come to recognize.

“I don’t need ALL the money, just some,” he said. It was then that I whipped out the gold star, his first one.

But I got Eric to build me those bookshelves. He bypassed the easy route and did the hard thing, he really built something.

And that’s why I gave Eric his second gold star.

I went to IKEA with Eric. I was, as I expected it to be--no offense at all to the Swedish—grossly underwhelmed by the quality. I love books, I wouldn’t do that to them, couldn’t. I asked Eric if he wouldn’t consider maybe, actually, building me something.

He rolled his eyes, but he rolled up his sleeves and, voila! Eric built me these beautiful book shelves, custom, angled to match the ceiling (if there was any question they were made exquisitely to fit.) There is even a pullout shelf for my keyboard, as he designed to spec!

I smiled at Eric as we stood staring at them, the product of a great gold star moment.

“So?” I said. “How do you feel? Pretty good, huh?”

He rolled his eyes, smiled sheepishly, and then nodded. Sometimes, I would actually argue, maybe ALL the time, hard work is its own reward. See what we can build if we really try? I never cease to be amazed. Thanks Eric, for all you’ve done…and will do…for me and others. It is work that will last a lifetime, or two or three.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Making the Best of It: Dapper David

It was a beautiful night in the park, the name of the benefit, Dancin' In the Rain, having ensured that it actually didn't rain as it had the two previous years for the Prospect Park Alliance's Party for Playgrounds.

Lots of dressed up people were milling about the Prospect Park Audubon Center at the Boathouse, a beautiful venue for a party, an auction to raise funds for the park's many great playgrounds. I could have stood there all night under the tent surrounded by colorful upside-down umbrellas, staring at the little lake and the bridge beyond, but that I needed a drink.

I neared the bar inside and was greeted by arguably one of the most charming sheepish grins I've ever seen from the bartender, who seemed to have arrived from central casting, clad in a bow tie and a paper hat that might have been silly on someone else but was, on him, somehow perfect.

"Wow," I said, awestruck. "If anyone can rock that hat, it's you..." I said.

His smile softened into a grateful look as he shook his head. "Really?" he said, wanting to believe but skeptical. "Thank you so much! I hate this dumb hat..."

I laughed. "But you wear it so well," I said. "Maybe on somebody else it's stupid, but you manage to make it look cool."

Clearly I had struck a chord. He shook his head again, as if I was an apparition, one he had tried to conjure but couldn't quite believe had actually appeared. "You're sweet..." he said.

He gave me a glass of white wine and I gave him a gold star, and made him pose until I'd captured the look he'd first given me, the "I-know-they-made-me-wear-this-stupid-hat-but-I'm-incredibly-awesome-anyway" look.

Sometimes, oftentimes, we are forced to do things against our will. Sometimes, oftentimes, we have to do things we don't want to do. But then we have to work with what we have when what we have (or have on) isn't what we'd choose. If we can smile in those moments, still feel our awesome selves, like David? Then, we're golden, no one can touch us.

And that's why I gave David a gold star.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Dance Party at Party City: the Senzala Gang

I love the Atlantic Center mall. It is always an adventure, a reminder of what can happen, what is possible, in an urban environment. Pulling into the parking lot recently, I saw two policemen and a policewoman pushing a police car. Surprise must have registerd on my face 'cause the policeman closest to me smiled and responded to my unasked question.

"Budget cuts," he said, laughing. "We ran out of gas..."

I wasn't quick enough to whip out my gold stars. When I parked on the lower level I tried to run up and find them, to take their picture, to capture the hilarious moment, but it had passed.

I moved along to Party City, my intended destination, and loaded up on decorations for a concert I was helping out with. In line, a long line, The Gap Band's 1982 hit You Dropped A Bomb On Me played loudly around and, all of a sudden, I was surrounded by swaying, dancing bodies.

I started laughing as the group, one of them holding a package of balloons, swirled a bit more and stopped when the song ended.

"That's awesome," I said, "you guys are great!"

Yes, they were. Turns out there was a reason: they were professionals, a group of Brazilian Capoeira teachers from Senzala. It was their graduation event that evening.

I love dancing in the aisles, I do it as much as humanly possible. I wish more people would do it. It's fun, it feels great. If you let yourself go with the music, just move, it's energizing, enlivening. It can help you get through the impatient moments while you wait for the angry woman ahead of you to stop yelling at the hapless store clerk. Clearly, this group knew that. They couldn't help themselves.

"We like good rhythms," Fernando explained with a shrug. And, lucky for me, they're not afraid to show it, and to show others how to enjoy good rhythm too. They are bringing their beautiful culture to our city, awarding those that take the time and energy to learn.

And that's why I gave Fernando and the rest of the Party City Dance Team--Sylvia, Bruno, Thiago and Mestri Toni--gold stars!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Finding the Fight: Diego

“You are driven by your convictions, you have to fight for what you believe…” he said strongly, stopping where he stood behind the counter to gesture boldly with the black Lucky Brand skirt he had tried to sell me a moment earlier, that had just come in. It’s what Diego, prevailing over the Smith St. Lucky store, learned in Peru, from being raised around revolution.

We need his spirit here, we need a revolution, we need to stand up and fight for what we believe in. He is right. I am wimpy. I give up too easily from arguing what I believe should happen with the really hard things, believing it too hard to change things, to change the whole scope of the greedy capitalist system. But he is damn right, I stand corrected. (And, for the record, I don’t say that very often.)

And that’s why I gave Diego a gold star!

It started harmlessly, our conversation, like all conversations. But I don’t let it rest easily, and others seem shockingly willing to follow my lead, happy to have the chance to say what’s really on their mind. It is awesome, I love it. We went from talking about the peace sign that Lucky has popularized, to the idea of how self-centered we all would be if reared in the wild, not taught to share, to the sad, sad fact that there will always be divisive, opposing forces in the world.

I shook my head, fingering the cool brown leather mesh belt I coveted but couldn’t bear to spend $48 on. “Such a bummer,” I said. “Why can’t we all just learn to get along?”

He smiled his big bright smile, a smile that might possibly be able to make it all better. “Not going to happen, sorry…” he said, his accent accenting his words, softening them.

But, Diego, what of convictions? Sigh. Our convictions so often take only our own selves into consideration. It must go back to the idea of self-centeredness. It had come full circle: we are at the center of our own universe I do believe, call me Buddhist if you will, like Diego did. It is always easy, then, to make The Other remarkably, reductively Other. But better not to, of course. Better to see them, to reward them just as you do yourself (or should). Better to give them a gold star.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Willing to Travel for Colson: Yonatan

When I saw Yonatan sitting on the bench outside Colson Patisserie, the fabulous french bakery he owns on the corner of 9th St. and 6th Ave. in Park Slope, I had to stop.

"You know, there are a ton of cafes closer to my house but yet my children will have none other than Colson croissants on the weekend, and make us walk the extra blocks, otherwise there is big trouble," I told him, mimicking some of their complaints of other cafes' attempts, "not flakey enough...too doughey."

He smiled a big sweet dimpled smile. "They obviously have great taste..." he said, then, "No, really, that makes my day, thank you."

Well, his croissants make my kids' weekend days, his espresso and baked oatmeal or an oatmeal cookie (if I'm feeling very bad) very often make mine before I head to the Y across the way.

And that is why I gave Yonatan Israel a gold star!

It is amazing, actually, how many cafes have cropped up in Park Slope, how much competition there is. And, yet, so many seem to survive, seem to draw a particular kind of person or to be placed in exactly the location so that lazy New Yorkers need not even cross the street on the way to the Subway.

In this city, we get very used to things being convenient, to being able to find the best of everything right within our reach. Sometimes, as with my kids' love of Colson croissant, we are compelled to travel a bit for what we want but we are ever hopeful when that storefront comes open across the street or a single block away that it will be something that we absolutely love and need and that it will prevent us from having to go further afield.

I often say most New Yorkers' "neighborhood" is no bigger than a five-block radius. Colson just makes it as part of my hood. Lucky me! Turns out, though, even if I should ever move, I'd have to travel there anyway. It is worth it, I must say!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

It Takes A Village...

I have been toying with adding pictures and names on my blog for a while, but had wondered if people would really want to be featured, focused upon? Turns out, some do, some really do and some don't. But the simple act of imagining that people might actually be buoyed by the recognition has given me a renewed sense of the project, helped me understand how important it is--both for those that want to see themselves and those who don't--that there is some acknowledgment of people's efforts.

Because I am energized about the idea anew, believe wholeheartedly in the power of the gold star sticker to make someone's moment, their day, their week, I am overwhelmed: shouldn't I give a gold star sticker to everyone I see? Who am I to choose? Why is it just me?

Sitting in temple the other day, a rare thing, I was delighted and amazed by the Rabbi's story of a little village whose citizens were told that someone among them was the Messiah.

"It could be any one of you that was brought here to save the world..." the story went.

The Rabbi told of how this powerful idea resonated throughout the village, how everyone started to treat everyone else with much more respect, how they started to treat even themselves with much more respect. The idea changed the village into a special place, far better than before, a place where people actually believed in one another's power to raise each other up and, because they believed it, they actually made it happen.

I was so excited to hear the story. It is, I believe, the same message I am trying to send with my project. Each and every one of us has within us the ability to raise up another, to raise up ourselves, if only we believed we had been granted such a power, if only we thought it possible.

I can tell you from my daily travels, in both words and the deed of disseminating the gold star, that it is entirely possible, relatively easy in fact if we put our mind to it. Yesterday alone, pulling myself out of a funk, I began to reach out, to yank myself headlong out of my shell by giving out a slew of gold stars.

I gave one to the man who sold me 10 records for $5, mostly Barbra Streisand. (I bought them nearly as much for the pictures of the ever-changing Babs as for the music.)

I gave one to the awesome writer/party planner behind the counter at S'Nice whose two favorites on the menu were the same as mine: the Curry Cauliflower Wrap (yum!) and the Quinoa Salad. ("No picture, please," he said.)

I gave one to the fabulous owner of Brooklyn Mercantile, Tamara, who was happy to engage in a conversation about the ills of technology, our passive-aggressive backlash to the idea of having to respond to people right away, and the pathetic Capitalist notion of planned obsolecence that has us paying top dollar for low quality. Her shop is a testament to her beliefs, filled as it is with high-quality items at relatively low prices and classes on how to make things and fix things you already own.

Strangely enough, on my way home, I ran into Janine, a seamstress who teaches at Brooklyn Mercantile, who is about to teach a class on how to take an existing item of clothing and turn it into other things, a dress into a skirt, a skirt into a bag, etc. Her young daughter, Orly, held in her hand an empty paper towel roll.

"Are you going to make something with that?" I asked. "I bet you're really creative, like your Mom, I bet you make lots of things..." I said.

I looked up and Janine was rolling her eyes. Under her breath she whispered in her beautiful English accent, "She knows how to make a mess..." Hilarious. I, of course, whipped out a gold star for both mother and child. They were on their way to the pet store to pick up a bowl for three new goldfish and, it turned out, I had one upstairs, long empty from housing a living thing. We have not had luck with fish and I don't plan on having any tear-filled toilet-flushing ceremonies anytime soon.

When Janine left with the fishbowl, free of charge, having offered me a discount on much-needed arm covers for my couch, I felt a million times better than I had in the morning. Here, right around me, was a community, one in which I was fully participating, in large part because I do believe that any one of us could be the one to help, that we all are, in fact, able to help one another.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Popularizing People Being Nice: Randy & Roadify

“We’re trying to harness goodwill and generosity for a practical purpose,” he said, “trying to popularize the idea of people being nice to each other.”

I loved that idea, loved Randy’s energy. He is the head of marketing for Roadify, a community-based transportation alert system that is enlisting people to “give to get,” to give information on parking spaces and bus schedules in order that they might get information on parking spaces and bus schedules when they need it.

Helping people help other people to help themselves? That's a no-brainer.

And that's why I gave Randy a gold star.

Randy and the Roadify team, including Roadify creator Nick Nyhan, are trying to build on their ideal that “people will help each other if given an easy way to do it.”

I am myself a big believer in that idea, agree that it has to be easy. “If it’s easy, yes, they will do it,” I said. I wrote too long about convenience foods, the short-cuts that we are all willing to pay for, even at the great cost of our health or the environment, to believe that selling people on doing the hard things, the things we should do but don’t want to, is at all simple.

But Randy is willing to work hard to help figure how to make it easier for others, that is obvious. He has community organizing in his blood, with a background working on AmeriCorps then on the Obama campaign, where he met Nick. He just finished reading Bill Clinton’s book, Giving. He himself is so passionate about the concept of giving that he has thought about tattooing the word “Give” on his body... Clearly, then, it is a true mantra, not just a mission statement. Would that his sincere efforts pay dividends, for Roadify, for Randy himself and for the world.

Friday, May 14, 2010

People Who Connect People: Andy

Standing in the Verizon Wireless store he runs on 9th St., Andy is like a party host. There is a couple hanging out on the couch, eating lunch.

"Are these friends of yours?" I asked.

He shook his head, no. "People hang out here, I don't know why," he said. "People have a bizarre connection to their phones, I don't know why." He might not understand it, but he shrugs and smiles and makes people feel at home while he helps them connect.

And that's why I gave Andy a gold star.

For Figuring Chemistry: Go Julie!

She came in to Red Horse for an iced coffee, her eyes a bit glazed over.

"I just finished a four-hour Chemistry exam..." she said. She is studying pre-Veterinary medicine. 'Nuff said.

That is why I gave Julie Brenner a gold star.

Julie used to work at Dizzy's, a Finer Diner. That is where I met her. I remember when she decided to go to back to school, how excited she was. She loves animals, they love her. It's funny, the idea of chemistry, the kind of chemistry she has with dogs, that people have with one another.

I was amazed once when a woman in my writing class shrugged at the idea of trying to figure out why two people might have connected and said in a blase fashion, "It's just chemistry..." Just chemistry? Chemistry is incredibly complicated. I give Julie a lot of credit for trying to figure it.

She looked at me with her incredible eyes and said simply: "The key to chemistry is making sure that the equation is balanced..." As if that's easy. We all strive for balance, right? Making sure it happens is the hard part. Julie is working on that, hard, in her life, in her relationship. Very impressive.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Beauty-Appreciating Barista: Jesse

"Is it hot in here..." he said, leaning in toward
me with narrowed eyes and a sexy smile, "or is it just

I rolled my eyes, wise to his ways and turned to the
other barista behind the counter.

"He says this to all the girls, doesn't he?"

She just shook her head. "No. Jesse makes every one
of us feel special in a different way. He
makes us all feel beautiful. Because he thinks we're all

And that's why I gave Jesse Auguste a gold star!

It wasn't Jesse's first gold star, not by a long shot. I have given him many and he probably has deserved many more! He serves me Americanos or very special Soy Matte Lattes with beautifully-designed foam nearly every day with a beautiful smile and a quip.

He reminded me of when I gave him his first gold star, many months ago, on a day when he had received a parking ticket, actually a more severe parking sticker, on his car. Instead of staying angry, letting it get him down, he had decided to own it, peeling the sticker off and sticking it on his white t-shirt. When I saw it, I had laughed uproariously and handed him a gold star. Nice work, turning something upsetting into something funny, something you could laugh about with customers and friends. This kind of thing is why people wait in long lines at Naidre's, why everyone loves Jesse.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Star for a Smile...

Andrea spreads sunshine with her bright smile.
"Part of my Hinduism is an obligation to be happy," she said.
It shows, her efforts to "make the world a more noble place."

That's why I gave her a gold star...

I met Andrea a few months back at the corner grocery, where her exchange with the clerk could best be described as exuberant. The clerk had noted how Andrea always made her day with her smile and her optimism. I had to step in and give her a gold star. After all, she was obviously giving everyone she encountered so much. She remarked to me then that she herself had thought often of giving out gold stars, especially on the subway, when people seemed to need one so badly. She loved the project, loved her star. She needed it more than I knew, having just been laid up in her apartment for quite a while after an injury.

I invited Andrea to a party I was having the next day and she came, and she lit up the place. Everyone kept telling me, "I met your friend Andrea, she's great!" We tried to get together a bunch of times after that, to no avail, but today it finally worked. As we sat at Naidre's, she talked of one of her favorite blogs,, a glamorous site focused around a sophisticated French woman's love of all things Hermes.

But still, despite such aspirations, despite her beautiful elephant bracelets and her funky designer frames, she said, "the gold star you gave me is at home, it is one of the things I treasure most. I can't sell it on eBay for even a penny," she laughed, unlike one of Maitai's Scarf Fur Collars. "But it has intrinsic value, it reminds me that I was acknowledged for being myself, for doing something I do naturally."

I love that! And now, Andrea has another gold star, this one right on her P.D.A., a mobile reminder that being her fabulous self should be always be its own reward!

Word Play...

I am never more reminded of why I live where I live, why I live in the Big Bad City, than when I ride the subway. Take yesterday, for example. I picked up my kiddies from school a bit early for a doctor's appointment in Manhattan. Don't ask. I have been remiss at making Well Visit appointments the year in advance necessary to get in at the Brooklyn office and camp health forms are due, so...I am forced to travel. No matter. I like the excuse to get my kids into The City from the Brooklyn burbs every so often.

We stopped at the deli for snacks and Eli had his book, Oscar the iPod I had brought along, just in case of boredom. I actually had the chance to read on the subway with my kids...Man, I love that they're getting older. I couldn't read, though, distracted by the many people and conversations all around me. One in particular stood out. How could it not? The kids were yelling across the crowded subway car at one another, joking and trying to get attention, as young punks are wont to do. As a few girls got off, one, who had stayed on, shouted at them a word that, luckily, my kids, if they'd been paying attention, would have thought was referring to a fluffy kitty cat...Of course, I knew better, was mildly shocked at the usage of it, by a girl no less. I looked around, as usual when I need to share, to see who else had been paying attention. A young girl sitting across from me met my gaze and smiled. I laughed.

"Well, I'm glad my children don't know that term yet..." I said. She laughed.

I thought about it, though, about how the subway always provides an important reality check on the way kids talk, on the words they think are okay to use. If she had checked Wikipedia, this young girl would have seen that her use of the common cat reference, her use of it as a shout out to her girlfriends, could be considered rude, or, to quote, "Most dictionaries mark the anatomical meaning as 'vulgar' or 'offensive' and its use is frowned upon in polite company."

To be fair, however, I'm sure she didn't care. Quite the opposite. But it made me think. Why was she using this term? As I watched her, plugged in to her music, her face held up high and proud, her eyes closed, pretending not to know the boy down the car who kept prodding her with false nicknames, it occurred to me: words are power. And, in many cases, when you have so little power, it is words you can turn to. They are cheap, cost nothing in fact, and by using them in a new way, in a way that shows others you will not be cowed by anything they call you, by any particular body part people might define you by, you can own what you are. Or, at the very least, pretend to in public.

I went about my business, making sure my kids' baby Goldfish didn't spill all over the subway floor. I had told them they could eat, even though it was against the rules, as long as they didn't make a mess. I am a bad mother that way, always allowing rules to be broken when I understand that my careful actions will avoid creating the problem the rule was meant to address. Oscar, at 6, always chastises me for this, like when I cross against the light, even when I see it's safe.

As I sat there, another girl got on and began to speak loudly, clearly for the benefit (or so she thought) of others, of us. Before too long, she too used that powerful P word in easy reference to a female pal. I shook my head and looked over at my friend across the aisle.

"Really?" I said. "This is why I ride the subway, to see what new words are newly popular, how they're being used..."

She laughed. I'd like to think these girls are hearkening back to the 1500s, finding it in their hearts to tap into the historical definition of the word they're using as it might have been first used, as "a term of endearment for women." I'm going to say it's that, see the cyclical nature of language as a positive, hope that the use of this term gets them somewhere good. Words can get you somewhere, I think, if used well.

I gave my new friend, the one who listened when I had to talk, a gold star as she got off the train. "Thanks!" she said, excited. I never fail to be surprised by the happy unsurprised response people have to receiving a star. It's nice to have an ally and, in this case, I took a pass on making it my kids. Eli, for one, has enough words in his current arsenal to bleep. He is like a censor, choosing the phrases most likely to be loathed by me and bleeping out the really bad ones. But there is no mistaking his meaning. I can imagine, before too long, he'll know this one that's being bandied about freely. It will enter his universe. Whether he will understand its meaning is unclear. After all, do I? Apparently not.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Far-Sighted Failure...

It is so easy to stop seeing the people right around you. I am guilty of that, and my choice of gold star giveaways has underlined that the last few days. As it turns out, I had failed to reward neighbors and friends who have been standing on the sidelines, hearing about the project, reading the blog, telling others about it. They, in fact, had never even received a star.

A friend turned to another friend at coffee the other morning, as we sat on the corner in front of Colson's on a beautiful blue-sky day, and asked her point-blank, "Have you gotten a gold star?" That friend had, she hadn't.

My jaw dropped. "Is it possible I haven't given you one?" I asked, incredulous but realizing it must be true as I reached into my bag. No, I hadn't, ever, not once in the year-plus I have been talking incessantly to this friend about it, asking for her counsel as a mover and shaker, a get-things-done gal.

"Wow! I'm sorry..." I said. She almost didn't take it, didn't want it if she felt she had asked for it. But I hadn't really thought she would want one somehow, or I thought I had given her one and would look silly giving her one again...Either way. I rectified it, forcing it onto her hand. She definitely deserves it and I had been horribly remiss.

It is a common problem, I'm finding. Another friend and neighbor who has told me she reads my blog and likes it, after hearing that another neighbor had received a star and had been asked about it by a lot of people, looked at her and asked, with a slight tinge of envy in her voice, "What did you get a star for?" She had received it because she is trying, of course, I see her every day helping out at our kids' school, rushing around in the same swirls I am, making an effort to be both person and parent, to make it work. I hadn't ever given her a gold star.

It occurred to me that this other woman, this other hard-working mother of two, a songwriter, wife, daughter, always rushing like mad to get all she needs to get done done, always trying, hadn't received a star. Here I stood in the lobby feeling amazed. How had this happened?

So many people right around me have not received stars. I find that it is an easy metaphor for what happens in real life, not just in this project: we forget about what is right under our nose, we fail to notice it and appreciate it. Pathetic.

It is fitting that this idea should arise on Mother's Day. My family has just served me oatmeal and a smoothie and coffee on a tray in bed as I write this blog. I have demanded these things, made sure to voice my desires after last year's debacle where I joked that "I got nothing for Mother's Day, but my husband got a nice long lecture!"

The point of days like these, silly Hallmark holidays, is that they force us to stop and take notice of all the things that people do that we take for granted. I teased Oscar, my youngest, that I was going to play the role of him on Mother's Day, whining, "I want...I want...Gimme, gimme, gimme..." all day so he could see how it felt. I want him to stop and take notice of all the things I do, not to make him feel guilty, I do (most) of these things because it's my pleasure, but because it will be an important thing in his life to recognize the efforts of others, especially efforts made on his behalf.

Sometimes, I think, it is easier to be kind to strangers. It is, at the very least, far less complicated than figuring ways to reward those around you all the time. I'm glad I have had a reminder of that. I guess I needed it. As I drag my kids around the park to find birds shortly, a gift I am demanding they give me, I will certainly spend time reminding them that we have to remember those close to us in our lives, those that we see every day, and not take them for granted. Giving out even proverbial gold stars to people in your life is so, so important! Happy Mother's Day Moms! Enjoy your moment in the sun...

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Thank-You to Great Writers' Children...

Good literature, at its best, lets us in to the real thoughts in a writer’s brain, offers us access to the imaginings a regular non-writer-person might never admit, even to the dog.

I have been saved by such literature, by the mere notion that those things I think sometimes, the things that might be dinner-party-don’ts, might in fact be shared by others. These books, those of Erica Jong and John Cheever and William Styron and James Baldwin and Jerzy Kosinski and Susanna Kaysen, have allowed me on many occasions to breathe sighs of great relief that all is not always what it seems, that the facades we often face are simply that, that I am not the only “crazy” one.

I have been thinking about this notion a lot as I attempt to create my own honest work of writing, to put together my own novel. I have been appreciating even more what it takes for an author to acknowledge their thoughts and feelings, even the seemingly unseemly dirty details of their lives, and been amazed at their perseverance despite the toll such admissions might take on their families, their husbands and wives, their children.

So it was with great interest a few weeks back that I came across a direct display of that toll right on my Facebook page. A number of months ago I had come across writer Molly Jong-Fast on Facebook and, seeing that we had some mutual friends, I did what any aspiring writer does these days: I friended her. To my great delight, she friended me back. I have, as of yet, been too wimpy to friend her mother, Erica Jong, as I am still getting my sea legs networking with writers whose work has greatly affected me, fearing…I don’t know what.

Well, on this particular day, April 20, Ms. Jong-Fast had written on her status that she “apologizes for her mother’s comments…” I had to look it up to see what she was apologizing for, given that Fear of Flying, the 1973 bestseller that belied women’s supposed frigidity, had likely long ago ceased to be an embarrassment. I found it relatively easily, the media world being what it is. Clearly, this reference was to some comments Ms. Jong had made about Oprah in a blog post about Kitty Kelley’s new book, comments that were pretty harmless if not at all PC.

Nonetheless, I could understand how a daughter might indeed want to separate herself from such comments, to ensure that her own “friends” and friends might see that the thoughts therein expressed did not reflect her own. As I read through the comments to the post, it got even more interesting. There in front of my face was another daughter of one of my favorite authors, Susan Cheever, who posted her own complaints of parental word-permissiveness.

Ms. Cheever noted: “And I apologize for MY mother’s and my father’s too…”

Among the other 10 or so comments were a number from Erica Jong herself, including one in response to Ms. Jong-Fast’s admission that “I love you Mom!” that said, “I love u too. We can disagree and still love.”

I shook my head. This was more than slightly surreal for me, a weird window into what it is like to make one’s feelings public through the written word, in all the many forms available to us writers these days.

Despite wanting to enter the conversation, I kept quiet. Who am I, after all, but a fly on the wall of these more well-known writers’ trials and tribulations and triumphs? It did warm me quite a bit to know that these women whose lives are so affected by their parents’ honest admissions are themselves writers, bound, if they are at all honest, to put their own progeny into a quite similar bind. It is not at all unlikely that their children will be likewise commenting on Facebook or whatever social media is popular in a few years, about the embarrassing thoughts of theirs that get shared.

I mulled the subject again last night as I ran the bake sale for an amazing under-attended event at my sons’ school last night featuring Alexandra Styron and Bliss Broyard discussing the memoirs they've written about their fathers. Ms. Styron bravely shared a passage of a book set to come out next year about the great William Styron, a writer who dared to take on the tough topics of slavery, the Holocaust and his own paralyzing depression, and who changed many lives in the process. Her story of her father, of course, intimately involves her and the affect the more frustrating aspects of being a brilliant writer had on her, on her family and, of course, on her father himself. I almost burst into tears about 15 times during her reading, one of the first she's made on the book, which even her mother hasn't read.

Ms. Broyard, daughter of book reviewer Anatole Broyard, likewise nearly brought me to tears talking as she did just as openly about her father and the "secret" they learned only on his deathbed, that he was actually part black, had abandoned sisters and family nearby for fear that he would be outed.

These women inspired me. I am humbled by the art that brings about, sadly, a sometime shame. But it is, I feel, for the greater good that great minds share even the darkest thoughts. I remember this as I write, and I hearken back to a much smaller me, dwarfed by the stack of books I brought weekly to the checkout at my public library in Tucson, Arizona, the stack that I hoped against hope the librarian would believe I could read in the time allotted. I could, and did. I am understanding of the toll it may take on the sons and daughters of those people, but those words cheered and consoled me and continue to nearly every day. Gold stars go out to writers and their families for all it takes to have the guts to share, and help.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Is Everyone an Artist?

I always get into great conversations at Dizzy’s, with the guys behind the counter. Monday was no exception. I had remarked to my pal, again, about a photograph I coveted, one of a narrow walled street in Morocco with a sliver of blue sky ahead. Something about it gives me hope.

“I don’t know,” my friend said, shaking his head, not wholly convinced the shot was worth the $250 pricetag. “I guess, with photography, I’m not convinced…a lot of people think they’re artists but…”

I knew where he was headed, where a lot of people go. There is so much judgment about “what is art,” “who is an artist…”

I shook my head, defensive for art forms of any kind, feeling like I always did with my Dad at MOMA.

“I suppose art is in the eye of the beholder,” I said.

Anyway, I told him, I had just come from my sons’ school, from an amazing African dance performance where every single third grader—even those I had coaxed unwillingly into the pool at points, those I had heard on many occasions offer up ‘I can’t’ with doing things or creating things—had participated, and not just half-way. Each and every one of them had swayed and swished around the fourth-floor “stage” with great pride and beauty. It was a sight to behold, a real achievement of artistic endeavor. The performance greatly affected both the participants and the audience, it was obvious. The dance teacher and the PTA president who had the great presence of mind to hire her both got gold stars.

“See,” I said, “I am confident that we all have artistic talents, if only we are encouraged to try, if we are not shot down with the idea that only some people are real artists…” I shook my head.

“Did I offend you?” he asked with a look of concern.

I laughed. “I don’t get offended. It’s just a question of whether I still like you…”

Luckily, I still like him because he acknowledged shortly thereafter that his judgment, like all our judgments, came from a personal place, from a place where he had been overly judgmental of himself for not liking certain things or not discerning what did or didn’t speak to him. That I understand. I have learned to walk by a lot of things in a museum that do not speak to me, that do not pull me in or provoke me to thought, even if it’s a Rembrandt. I have learned to change the station if the music doesn’t move me, even if it’s Tchaikovsky.

I try not to be overly judgmental, though, of what I don’t care for just as I try to judge myself less for my own artistic efforts, as I try also not to put fear into my children about their own potential artistic talents. My hubbie has taken up drawing and goes faithfully to class every week, working painstakingly on pieces he is proud of when they’re done. Oscar brings home How to Draw books from the library and tries his hand at getting a likeness for sharks, cars, what have you. I play the piano joyfully by ear, even if I can’t play chords well with my left hand, even if it doesn’t sound like Mozart. And my kids have courage with their own efforts, be it piano, drums, guitar or mixing on their fabulous music teacher’s computer.

If only as an outlet for their own thoughts, their own feelings, as a way to express themselves, as outlets for us to express ourselves, these efforts are so valuable. I think the message might be sinking in that art in almost any form is of value, value beyond a monetary number.

The other night, Oscar brought home Tomie dePaola’s The Legend of the American Paintbrush, about an artist who is tapped to find the colors to bring the sunset down to earth in his painting, someone who is challenged by his gift, who often wishes he could make other more regular choices, to be like everyone else. I thought of my Dizzy’s friend, of his belief that not everyone chooses to be an artist, to go down that road. I can see that, agree even. It is often a hard road. My kids and I chatted after the book about the responsibility of the artist, of how important it was for him to use his great gift.

Oscar nonchalantly shrugged and offered up his thoughts: “Art changes people’s lives...”

I smiled. "I agree," I said, and I do, wholeheartedly, I think that about art in every form, from the most crude kids’ drawing to a great novel.

On Tomie dePaola’s website, which references the more than 200 children’s books he has written, there is a quote, from political artist Ben Shahn, from a comment he made to dePaola in the summer of 1955. It offers only that “being an artist is not only what you do it is how you live your life.”

I would argue that there is an artist in all of us, that our lives can change others’ lives through so many forms. I gave my Dizzy’s friend a gold star. I think it’s great just to try to discuss these things, to figure them in our own heads. And I gave a gold star to a man sitting next to me who was pitching a new art installation to Dizzy’s owner, who will also get a gold star when next I see him for offering opportunity to local talent. Maybe he'll give me a discount on the photograph…

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Big Win

On our way to my older son Eli's baseball game yesterday, he and I began to chat.

"So," I said, "your team is doing great this year!" I enthused.

He stopped and looked up at me quizzically, his face scrunched into the classic "duh" expression.

"We haven't won one game..." he said.

Oops. I laughed, caught out for not having paid close enough attention.

"Well, you've had fun, right?" I said.

"Yeah," he said.

I shrugged. "I really don't care about winning or losing," I said.

He shrugged too. "Yeah, me neither."

I struggle with this all the time, this idea of not caring, of not wanting to make besting the competition a huge, important priority. I know that it is a fact of life, that most situations demand that there be a winner and a loser, but I cannot reconcile myself to it. It just feels too terrible. Why can't we all win?

I thought of this as I sat on a blanket in the shade, barely glancing up at the game as it was played. I have more than a little A.D.D. and I find it hard to focus when I look at a field full of moving people. At least, that's my excuse. I try to catch the times that Eli comes up to bat, if he should catch a ball in the field. But I don't want to look too closely. If he should strike out (which he sometimes does) or miss a ball (which can happen) I feel bad for him but I don't want to let on, don't want to give him any sense that it matters. Cause, in the scheme of things, it really doesn't.

There came a point, though, after a long, long while of sitting, relaxing, that I picked up on a new vibe. The team had been losing pretty badly, the other team far more fiercely competitive than ours, the coaches chastising players in a way Eli's gentle coach would not. We laughed over on the blanket, calling our team the Bad News Bears. But none of us seemed to mind. It's all for sport, all in a day's fun.

But the teammates started whooping, so much so I that I was actually compelled to rise from my blanket and see what was up. It was close, it turns out. Eli's team had come from behind and actually had a chance to win. They were all abuzz, excited, slapping each other on the backs, mini versions of Major Leaguers, doing what they imaged Major Leaguers might do.

I went back to my blanket perch, but with renewed focus on the game. Within a minute, a boy I know from Eli's school, a sweet, sweet smiling kid who has had a very hard time, whose Dad died suddenly last year, who has been held back a grade, whose baseball jersey can barely button over his big belly, slammed one hard, well into the outfield, well into victory.

I won't soon forget the smile on his face as he rounded the bases, as he came into home to the high-fives and hugs of his teammates. I was up in a flash, on my feet, and, with tears in my eyes, I hugged this kid, this kid I have in the past coaxed across the pool, up from his back on the ice skating rink, a kid who, despite his girth, is incredibly graceful and athletic, who has incredible promise and potential. He had won the game for his team and it was so, so great.

As I jumped up and down, screamed to Eli's teammates what a great job they had done, cheered them as they cheered themselves, I had to laugh at myself, at what a hypocrite I was. Sometimes, winning does matter, it means a lot, it is a huge reward for efforts expended and it makes people feel great, gives them hope for the greatness they can achieve if they try.

I gave this boy who had helped his team to victory a gold star, quietly, surreptitiously as I didn't have enough for all. But he deserved it. He should remember this moment. I tried not to notice the disappointed faces of the other team, their angry coach. Sometimes, you just have to see the bright side of a big win.