Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Maine-ly Perfect

Aaah, Maine. The entire state deserves a gold star.
Nothing quite says summer like a lobster roll and some clam chowder at our favorite Booth Bay eatery, The Lobster Dock. The girl behind the counter deserved a gold star for making us feel better about the 20 minutes we stood in front of the big board, surveying our options. It's hard to choose when you get somewhere but once a year and look forward to it the rest of the days.

"I've seen people take longer..." she sympathized. "It's a big menu."

Vacations are fabulous but not without their challenges, not the least of which is the idea that every moment should be fabulous, picture perfect. There is so much on which to decide, so much you imagine should be wonderful and so many of your regular worries and stresses that you have brought with you, your baggage in your baggage.

It feels as though all should drain away except the beauty when you are looking at some of the misty watery vistas of Maine, and yet... The "shoulds" are what we "should" get rid of. Somehow I feel as if I should be magically sporty and fearless when faced with the outdoorsy adventure opportunities of Maine and, yet, my most treasured moments are spent in the bookstore at Booth Bay, or the candy store, at the flea market or one of many favorite antique stores, reading on the porch, looking up to see the clammers digging in the mud down the hill, with my children running in the grass catching fireflies. (OK, they are usually inside watching cable, but we won't talk about those moments:)

I have in our few short days here given out a fair number of gold stars to sunny Mainers, cheery even in the rain and humidity. "Is it the 27th or 28th?" asked the adorable older woman working at the co-op art gallery, trying to write the date. "I want to make sure I don't miss even one precious day..."

She is so right. There is so much to appreciate here, so much beauty to behold. We should and will in earnest try to leave our neurotic New York selves behind...I think it might require lots of lobster and a fair number of trips to the DQ.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Savoring the Impermanence of Places, Things: Uncle Earl's KC Groves

I met KC Groves at Parco one morning a few weeks back. She was happily, naturally engaging in a conversation about good books, taking suggestions from my friend Emma. She seemed like a local, but she was actually just passing through, back from a tour in Germany ("great food, well taken care of...") and now on her way to a bluegrass festival, DelFest, in Maryland, with her band, Uncle Earl.

After the festival, she said, "I'm going to hit the Appalachian trail." I was envious hearing of her travels. She smiled.

"All I do is travel, and I always think 'could I live here? Maybe this is where I should live...'"

It made sense, then, why she fit in so well in the corner here at Parco. She was trying Park Slope on for size.

I laughed. "I always think that too!"

I shared with her my own thoughts of the area where she was headed in North Carolina where I had travelled with my family along the Blue Ridge Parkway years earlier. I had met a lovely woman at a junk shop in Mt. Airy. She had given me a little succulent as a gift after I had given her a gold star.

"'Hens and chicks,' she called it..."

KC nodded. "Yes, Semper Vivum," she said. "Always alive."

I cringed. "Yikes. It died..."

We laughed. Gifts from strangers are often temporary, as are travels to faraway places. But it is important to learn to appreciate them in the moment, to savor them. KC definitely seems to do both, she's definitely trying, which is why I gave her a gold star. Later, listening to her great band online, I realized I should have given her another...they are awesome!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Rolling with Summer...

Today is the solstice, the first day of summer. It is the first day of the week, the first day of a new season, it is a transition day on which I should give out a lot of gold stars. The first go to my friends Anne and Mike for having us over to their glorious roof deck for the first of (I hope) many evenings enjoying the sunset over Brooklyn.

Change is necessary but hard, that is for sure. My children have four more days of school and then are off for the summer, on vacation, in camp, out of their regular routines into new ones and, often, none. It is a nice break but, as a friend told me earlier about when her child goes down for a nap, breaks can become breakdowns, moments where there is not enough distraction from the things that plague and worry us.

Summer can be fabulous, fun, a time to do all those things you've dreamed of doing. But the list of those things can get long, the ability and means to do them not so much. I hear complaints nearly every summer weekend if people here haven't gone exciting places, done interesting things, taken advantage of all a city like New York and its surrounding environs have to offer.

"I'm doing some easy parenting," a neighbor told me recently as he sat on a bench in my apartment building's courtyard, his son running around in the grass. Maybe it was just me, but it sounded like a judgement of himself, one I offer up all the time of my own parenting when my kids aren't actively engaged, one I  hear from so many others when every moment isn't fun-filled and action packed. We are so hard on ourselves, never more so when opportunities abound, when it is totally up to us (not the school) to take charge of the curriculum.

This summer, I am bound and determined to enjoy, to appreciate all we do (and don't do) and to appreciate that everyone needs a break. Years after the school-year schedule no longer applies to me personally, just my kids, it still feels like the end of things, a wrap-up before a brief hiatus, before September begins everything anew. I try to remember from past years, September comes all too soon. Hopefully you'll remember that too! Gold star for trying...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Teaching Kids to Care: Ms. Marissa

I send my boys to a public school, PS107 in Park Slope, that is a little bit of heaven in the big bad city. It is filled with a faculty like Ms. Marissa, a princess for the day (it's her birthday tomorrow!) and a princess the whole year through in my eyes because she looks out amazingly well for my little Oscar.

Ms. Marissa got her gold star today for getting through the full hard year of teaching five- and-six-year-olds with great patience. She, like the rest of the 107 team, while imperfect as the rest of us, love each and every one of the children in their midst with all their heart, they care about them immensely and wish for them the best. That is no small thing.

When I worry for a moment, especially at the beginning of the year, if I am doing the absolute best thing for my children by sending them to this particular school, if they are learning the most they can learn, getting the most out of the school environment that they can, becoming the greatest people they have the potential to be, I start making a list of the problems, my concerns. And then, every year, I remember: this is a phenomenal community of the kind you cannot pay enough for. The reason why? The people that surround my boys, the people I entrust them to for many hours a day, care, they really, truly care. I can call many of them on their cell phones in a bind and they are always willing to help.

Such recognition relaxes me. This is what I most hope my kids can learn in their lives. More than math or science or nutrition, things I or the Internet could fairly easily teach them, I rely on a school to teach them about the necessary giving and receiving, the sharing and listening and compromising that is required in relating to other people, to the world.

If and when I have suggestions for changes, I know I cannot just complain, I have to act, I have to engage in the conversation with teachers and faculty about the problem and I have to be willing to take on whatever extra work fixing said problem requires, to figure if it can realistically be fixed, if ever and how. Of course, I often decide I do not have the time or energy to fix things as I would ideally see fit to. Or I realize that I am sending my children out into the world and, once there, I can only hope they take the lessons they learn at home and apply them in those places outside my control, that they come home and start a conversation with me if what they are told outside seems to grossly differ from what my husband and I have tried to impart.

So I let a lot go. I often I bite my tongue and realize that we live in a world full of imperfections and so will our children. The problems that French philosopher Montaigne outlined in the 1800s are ones we still grapple with today so I have no illusions that change is easy.

But I try, with my children and with their teachers both, with myself, to cheer successes, to see the glass half full. It is hard, granted, but necessary. This, I feel, is the best way to ensure the overall well-being of my family and my community. Look, in the end, it is selfish: if I support them, the teachers, inevitably, support my children, they look out for them in a way they might not if I were not on their side. That, I think, is a fact of human nature. Thank you Ms. Marissa for looking out for Oscar! I know it's not always easy...believe me, I know.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Massaging A Life: Trish Salazar

Maria-Elena, the barista at Parco who applauds every time I give out a gold star, had alerted me to her friend and neighbor standing there, to her "really cool job."

"What do you do?" I asked.

She smiled, somewhat sheepishly. "I massage people, in the Hamptons."

I laughed. "Nice, I love that!"

Turns out, as we sat and talked, that Trish Salazar has built a clientele organically, patiently allowing her skills to speak for themselves. And people have clearly taken notice, rewarding her with business and opportunities and with spreading the word about her to their friends. She is modest, that much is obvious, but she is also warm and genuine and awesome with a killer smile, all great traits to make people feel at ease on the massage table, to allow people to get the most out of their hour.

"You made my day, I love you!" she enthused as I gave her her gold star.

No surprise, that is my favorite response, the one I hope many people feel even if they don't say it quite as boldly. Trish is bold, I loved her too! We talked for quite a while, sharing the ways in which we are both working hard to figure our lives and careers, to put plans in place but also to find the patience to let life unfold in the magical ways it does when we are not trying to exert total control. It is a hard balance for sure. Plan and there is no room for spontaneity, don't plan and you risk having nothing going on.

Trish is wrestling with what direction to take, grappling with it, so to speak, but ever so gently and calmly. Just talking to her I felt like I was relaxing, the tensions flowing out of me a bit. She squeezed my shoulder as she walked out of the cafe and I thanked her for the free brief massage...

I'm definitely going to reach out to Trish for a massage! She said she could come to me or I could visit her, at her house with her neighbors' chickens out back. "Fresh eggs..." she beckoned. I'm definitely going, sometime soon, before her plans take her elsewhere, to the Hamptons, or before the magical things she is ready to allow whisk her into a different world, or keep her in the same world, appreciating the view.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Words and Smiles Remembered: Matt

As I sit here writing, I am staring at an hourglass my son, Eli, picked up at a stoop sale this weekend. The words ring in my ears from years of soap-opera watching: "Like sand through the hourglass, so are the Days of Our Lives..."

Sappy, sacharine and so, so true. Recently I had the great pleasure of hosting a very old friend in my Brooklyn apartment, someone whom I have seen only at high school reunions over the last 20 years but who, according to my scrapbook, figured large especially in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades.

Matt Knox wrote me a letter in 1981 from his vacation in Santa Ana, California. I found it recently as he sat in my kitchen, in town from his current home in fabulous Manhattan Beach, California to promote his awesome online home-improvement and construction classifieds, DiggersList.

In it he told me "when you grow up you should be a marige (sic) counselor, or maybe a therapist. You do a good job talking to people."

He laughed as I read it out loud. "I said that?" he marveled. Neither of us remember the advice I'd given to warrant the comment, suffice to say it was helpful enough then that he appreciated it. So glad. The stakes were lower then, for sure, "marige" a far way off. But our problems are always hard to us at the time no matter how silly they might seem in hindsight.

It was as if no time had passed as we caught up on each other's lives, the various endeavors that had brought us through the years to now, to this moment when we are both working in our separate ways, on separate coasts, to help people do what they want to do, to achieve what they want to achieve.

He was high when he arrived here on the sheer exhiliration of offering interviews all day on what DiggersList can do. He smiled big even as he showed my kids on the Internet a ski jump like the one he didn't quite make it over, the one that had him in a cast for months and that has turned him into a bionic man (one afraid forever that he will set off the alarm at airport security.)

His big smile was the thing I remembered most about Matt, the thing that captured me then and now and is, likely, what captured those who had the good fortune to talk to him all over the New York media.

The connection we'd forged back then had stood the test of time because we are, of course, the same as we were. I still talk to people all around to try to help and learn from them how to help myself. I have no degree, but neither did I in the sixth grade when I chatted with my friend about how he might forge ahead in his relationships. Matt is as engaged with the world and the people in it as he was then. And that's why I gave him a gold star and good luck in all his endeavors...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Trip to Coney Island

I always love going to Coney Island. The idea that there is an ocean beach a half-hour subway ride from my apartment is amazing to me, let alone one that stands as a monument to history (its first carousel was built in 1876) and that offers a glimpse into the great ethnic mix of the borough of Brooklyn. The first trip of the season did not disappoint.

The six kids my friend Kelley and I had with us -- mine, the three she babysits and a friend's son -- were great sports on the train. With clouds looming, we were all prepared for the potential of a wacky misadventure.

Once there, though, the clouds thinned, parting way finally to full sun, and the kids played happily while Kelley and I were actually able to converse. A group of Arab boys played a rough game of soccer nearby and there were a few other stragglers, but mostly we had the beach to ourselves. I looked up and noticed a man had his lens trained on my friend's son, so I hopped up to introduce myself. One can never be too careful. Turns out, he is a photographer, Leslie Jean-Bart, from Haiti, who takes pictures of shadows and was trying to capture the shadows Harry sent on to the sand. Cool.

We exchanged cards and a mutual agreement that Coney Island was awesome. I ran up to my blanket to get Leslie his gold star.

The kids had buried one another, built a million tunnelled sand castles, ate corn dogs and caught some jellyfish that we watched swim around the bucket for a while, our own personal aquarium.

When they began to tussle, we took a walk to the pier to see what we could see. Last time, I had seen a fisherman catch a Skate. This time, a bunch of Asian women and their young sons were catching crabs with raw chicken as bait! They sweetly showed our group how to toss out the baskets into the ocean and then pulley up the rope.

Max caught a pregnant crab, which the young boy showed his Mom and then threw back into the Atlantic. There were too many of them to give gold stars, but we thanked them profusely and kept walking.

When we turned around to head back to our blanket, both Kelley and I gasped in unison: the dark clouds were fast descending behind us. Time to run! We got to our blankets and gathered our things and made it on to the subway just as the torrential downpour began. Misadventure averted. It was a mission well accomplished, a Coney Island day to remember. Gold stars to all those who work to keep the great landmark alive!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Happy Couple, or at Least Trying: David and Andrea

I ran into David in front of Red Horse. Actually, I ran into his dog, a beautiful black labradoodle, or she ran into me, jumping up and kissing me, wagging her tail. I had had a similar greeting from another labrapoodle the day before.

"I think labradoodles love me," I said, happy for the elated attentiveness of my new fluffy friend.

"They're very friendly dogs," he said. "She loves everyone."

I laughed. "So, I'm not special after all?"

He kindly amended. "No, no. I see that she is much friendlier with you, definitely..."

"Thanks," I said, "thanks for that..." I love people who play along.

I asked him where he was from. France. I have been doing my own personal research of late as to why the many Europeans who live here in Brooklyn live here. His reason walked up just then, Andrea.

"I was here for film school, then I liked it and did the program, and then we met and we're very happy, and so... here we are." Andrea is from Spain.

I smiled and mentioned a notice I'd seen in a cafe for a documentary called Happy Couples. "They're looking for happy couples..." I said.

Andrea smiled. "Kind of naive, isn't it?"

David shrugged, smiling, needing to amend again. "Maybe we're not happy..."

Perfect timing to whip out their gold stars.

"What are these for?" Andrea asked.

"For trying," I said.

"For trying to be a happy couple?" Andrea said.

I nodded. "And for trying to live in a country other than your own, for actually owning a dog, which I am too wimpy to do...for everything you do."

Andrea and David are trying on so many fronts, including talking honestly to strangers like me! That's why I gave them their gold stars.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Looking Great Naked: C.J.

When I ran into C.J. recently at Macondo, a great Latin restaurant on Houston where he is a waiter, I asked him straight out if he remembered me. He looked at me and then recognition quickly showed in his eyes. He pointed and laughed. "Hey, you're the star lady!" he said.

I laughed. "Yes, how are you?"

"Good, good, funny, I remember that," he said with a laugh. But, apparently, he didn't remember the reason. I do. I talk to a lot of people, but C.J.'s story stuck.

See, I was sitting at the bar of Macondo one night before writing class, before my friend arrived, and I had nothing to do but eavesdrop. C.J. and the bartender were talking about some event and the bartender shook his head.

"Dude," he said, "don't go naked, it's just NOT a good idea..."

C.J. stood back, away from the bar and gestured at himself. "Hey!" he said, "I look great naked!" He said it with utter conviction, upset that anyone might suggest his being naked, anywhere, could be a bad thing.

I think I spit out a fair amount of my mojito and the two guys looked over. "Don't mind me..." I said.

I said nothing until C.J. arrived at the table a bit later where my friend and I had been seated. It was a high bar table and C.J. was on the other side.

"Hey," I said, laughing, "Now I'm curious." He had looked confused.

"About the menu?"

"No," I said with a smile. "I mean, you say you look great naked..."

I couldn't help myself. It was too easy. He blushed. "Oh, you heard that?" he said.

I had nodded. "I did. But, really, I think it's great! I think it's awesome that you think you look great naked. It's important that people feel great about their bodies." That's when I pulled out a gold star and gave it to him. It was one of my first.

When I regaled C.J. with the story recently, he blushed anew. It was funny. But pride is so often a good thing, something that we have a hard time appreciating in ourselves, in our children, in anyone. But it is important. It keeps us trying.

And that's why C.J. got his second gold star. For the pride he initially showed and for being a good sport as I harrassed him, not once but twice.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Truths in Times Square

"Strong, strength," his big voice boomed out at me. It's hard to be heard in the middle of Times Square, but he managed.

I smiled at him, looked down at my tickets. "Not the play," he said, "you."

I laughed. "Hey, thanks!" I said. See, I thought, I should never wear short dresses into Manhattan. But I very obviously like talking to strangers, like to draw them near, to hear what they have to say, so attention is not all bad. Here, I had found my angel, someone who could see my strength (even if he was just judging it by my legs.)

We chatted about the theater. I was going to see Red, John Logan's play about the artist Mark Rothko.

He shook his head, "You should see Race," he said, referring to the David Mamet play, the second on my husband's list.

"Really?" I said, "Is it great?"

He leaned in conspiratorily. "I heard it is...that the performances are great, that it really gives a perspective on both sides."

"See, that's the problem," I said, "the reason I didn't buy tickets to something about race...I'm skeptical. I think it's really hard for people to be honest about these things. It would have to be incredibly well done to offer anything new."

He nodded in agreement. "But I heard it's good."

"Good to know...too bad I already bought these," I said. "So many plays to see, not enough money, not enough time..."

He smiled. "You have time," he said. "You're going to be around a long time," he predicted.

I laughed. "You think so?"

He nodded. "Yes. You're taking good care of yourself."

I gave him a gold star, didn't even get his name. I like it sometimes to keep my new friends anonymous. We were only meant to touch in the moment, to come together briefly, to make each other feel better.

"Thank you," I said, "thanks a lot."

I left my new friend nervous about my play choice, but I needn't have worried. Red was fabulous, insightful, strong. There is a strength to good writing, a force. It is hard to conjure, but when you hear it you know. It feels like the truth.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Learning, Trusting, Living Well: Gloria

Summer antiquing is in progress, and last weekend I dragged my hubbie over to a little flea market that has sprouted up next to the train tracks on Love Lane, a little street in Mattituck, Long Island, whose name fits its quaint little shops perfectly.

Poking around through various odds and ends, jewelry and side tables, civil war memorabilia and old magazines, the dribs and drabs left over at day's end, I happened upon a pretty turquoise glass vase for $10. The price was right and it would fit in my already-stuffed-with-stuff apartment.

The gentle-looking older lady sitting nearby began to offer up some details about it. She didn't know much, she said, it wasn't that old but...I waved her off. I'm not one of those people who cares about an item's pedigree, I just have to like the way it looks.

She shook her head. "There's a lot to know, though," she said. "I learn a lot just from listening to other people..."

I smiled and looked at her with new eyes, realized how intelligent she must be to know all that she doesn't know, to be listening to other people, to still be looking at everything for what she can learn about it even after living a good long time.

"That's awesome," I said. "I love that. And it's so true. It's amazing all there is to know..."

I loved her spirit, loved her even more when she told me about her store and then told me if I wanted to go there, I could call her when I got there and she would tell me where the key was hidden, that I could let myself in and leave the money for whatever I might want.

It is amazing on the North Fork, the trust, like with the veggie stand down the street from my in-laws that goes unmanned much of the time, with only a tin can where you can place the money for whatever you pick up. Many antique stores leave their wares outside all the time, trusting that no one would take them, not without leaving cash.

I paid for my vase and got her card, purpley-blue with a big yellow sunflower. Gloria Suttmeier, Sam's Gram, it said, and also The Flower Lady - Antiques-Collectibles-Garden Delights.

Gloria herself is the delight and she clearly takes delight in others. And that's why I gave her a gold star.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Retail Therapists: Karen and Latrina

The gates of boing! were partway down and the sign in the window said, "Gone crazy." I pushed forward into the store anyway, hopeful, as I was desperate for a last-minute baby shower gift.

"Come in, come in, don't mind the mess," said the owner, Karen Paperno. She pointed to something that didn't look at all messy.

I smiled. "I like your sign..." I said.

She smiled back. "Yeah, well..."

I met Karen quite a while ago, at the beginning of my gold star project, in Parco. She was wearing an incredibly beautiful scarf then, and we had talked about how important it is, even when you're not exactly feeling it, maybe especially when you're not feeling it, to put your best fashion foot forward. I had given her a star and she had put it right in the middle of her forehead happily. It seemed to suit her, as it did this time when I gave her a star for letting me in to the store, crazy or no.

She, as always, looked fabulous, sporting an exquisite necklace and a perfect summer dress. She immediately knew the Miracle Blanket I asked for and found me one in a suitable color for a baby boy, wrapping it sweetly.

"It's hard to run a business..." I said, looking around, watching her work, imagining all that went into buying and merchandising all the items in not just this but also her other location, boing boing, elsewhere in Park Slope.

She shook her head. "Absolutely. And even though you do the hard thing, the hard work, you don't always take the time to appreciate what you've done, to reward yourself...there is always 'what's next.'"

She looked up at me and pointed to her star. "I guess that's what you do..."

I laughed. "I try!"

Talking to Karen reminded me of a conversation I had struck up with a gussied-up girl on the subway the previous day, a girl whose gold belt inspired me to go over to her and add to her gold. She looked great.

Turns out she worked at Uniqlo and we got to talking about how busy it was in the store, how popular the current Costello Tagliapietra line has been for the chain.

"That's great!" I had said. She looked at me like I was crazy.

"Not really," she said. "It just means I have to stay later because the store is a huge mess..."

My mouth formed an O. Right. When you don't own the store, you don't reap the benefits of its success usually, you just have to work harder. That's why I gave Latrina Troutman her gold star.

Any way you slice it, owner or no, sometimes, a lot of the time, working in a store can make you crazy. But it is all for the greater good: retail therapy is reward for so many, myself included. So, thank you ladies

Have you received a star from me? Want to share your story? E-mail me at stephsthompson@gmail.com.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Capturing the World: Isak

The sheer number of different kinds of people represented in Brooklyn is staggering. Among the 2.5 million souls who brave residence in the city's largest borough--that is 35,000 per square mile according to 2008 census statistics--there are 93 different ethnic groups, 150 nationalities and 136 languages spoken.

My friend Isak Tiner, an amazing image-maker, decided to mark this incredible gathering of greatness all in one place, training his camera on just one microcosm of it, the incredibly diverse faces of the children at his beautiful daughter's school, P.S. 58 in Carroll Gardens.

Among the nearly 200 images he shot and posted on the wall in the lobby of the school are kids that span the globe from Sweden to Guatemala, many of them mixes of a variety of heritages that they can draw from for their own unique sense of self. One actually eschewed the moniker of specific place, using instead the more encompassing description of "Planetarian."

I met Isak a long while back when he and his beautiful daughter, Imann, bounded into Naidre's with a spirit I hardly see. By the time he left, with a gold star smack dab in the middle of his forehead (an image he quickly e-mailed to me), I was sold: I wanted him to take my picture. How could I not? I hated photographs of myself but this man, clearly, could see things others could not, I could tell from his eyes and it was confirmed when I went on his site, Pink Parrot Pictures, and saw the photographs he has taken. My blog photo is one of his from a great, fun day we spent shooting at my house shortly after our first meeting.

I love that Isak has put his great eye to helping the kids of Brooklyn appreciate where they are from and the places from which those around them might hail.

"By placing these faces together, we've given everyone a chance to stop and actually see each other...to try to understand how deep and rich everyone has the potential to be," he said.

Isak stops and sees people every day around Carroll Gardens, riding regally on his awesome bike, sometimes stopping to capture the beauty he sees in people, in places, in the world.

And that's why I gave Isak Tiner a (second) gold star!