Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Tis the Smile

Tis the season.

Tis the season to give, but where do you start and with who and is it ever enough?

Tis the season to receive, but do They even know you or care and is it ever enough?

Tis the season, if you're not careful, to be very, very bitter. Let's not, shall we?

I haven't written in a long while, and not because I haven't given out stars.

I have met and recognized the most amazing people every day, wherever I go. There is too much to say about how much people inspire me, so sometimes I get overwhelmed and don't say anything at all. But, before even my New Year's resolution to be better kicks in, I will note a few stories that stand out.

There was striking Sue Stirling, the beautiful makeup artist who worked magic on my eyes at the Mac counter at Macy's in Chicago's Water Tower.

She is a star and deserved a big gold one if ever anyone did for her kind understanding and prowess making people beautiful.

There was Sandy, on the subway, who hoped to get the train doors to close by sheer will.

"Do you have powers?" I asked, when he voiced aloud the command in his brain: "Please close NOW!"

He laughed. "Well, thank you, you've right-sized me..." he said.

We talked for the next 15 minutes about the control we have over our attitudes, whether toward being late (which I was too) or over bigger decisions in our life, like buying a home and actually enjoying it.

I didn't locate my stars before Sandy got off the train in a rush, but I gave him one in spirit.

There is Alex from the Cafe Colombe, the inspiring capitalist who buys up the coveted hoodies and hats from Supreme on Lafayette and sells them for a premium to the guys in the back of the line who didn't get up early enough.

He understood people, including the "line leader" boys he watches over and advises every week.

With a shine of thrill in his eyes, he described the Supreme brand and what it represents better than any high-priced marketing shop I ever interviewed in my days at Ad Age:

"It's rambunctious, aggressive,'s adolescence in its purest form."

I want Alex to run for political office. He understands human nature, the difference between need and desire. He dismissed my idea of gold stars for trying.

"You just have to DO," he said.

Of course, I agree, but I have sympathy--empathy even--for the inability we have sometimes to do even the things we greatly desire, when we don't NEED to.

Tis the season to give away love and understanding, whether it be a greeting card, a gold star or simply a smile and a little stupid phrase like, "Have a great day!"

That we can all do.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

How to Help a Neighbor in Need

She was well dressed, maybe 50-something, with a lovely coat and shoes and an artsy tote. She took her coffee to go and commented on how happy she was to be warm, and inside someplace cozy, inside Colson Patisserie in Park Slope.

"I have no place to go," she said, more matter-of-factly than one might expect, except now, after Sandy. "I'm staying with a friend until Friday and then..." she trailed off. "Then, I don't know."

The young barista looked uncomfortable, so I stepped in.

"Where do you live?" I asked, cognizant suddenly that the question was a loaded one, the tense all wrong. Where did you live?

"Red Hook," she said, turning to face me at my corner table. I just nodded. I'd not been there since the devastation, just heard tell of the wreckage 10 minutes away. I'd just seen pictures, donated money to help, as if it were New Orleans or some further foreign land.

"What do they say, about getting back in?" I asked, hopeful that there was some promise of hope.

She shook her head. "They don't say anything. No one has any information. I live in housing, and the building manager just tells me, when I ask, to go away."

"FEMA?" I asked. "Could you go to a shelter?"

She nodded no. "I just couldn't. All those cots, all those people together..."

It struck me, then. The horror of sudden homelessness, her horror.

"And the money..." she said, shaking her head, unbelieving herself. "It's running out."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I wish I had some information to give you, something..."

She laughed. "It's not for you to say you're sorry, to have information..."

"I should though," I said. "I should know, be able to do something."

Without even thinking, I reached into my bag. I felt so useless, I had to do something.

"Here," I said, standing up from where I'd been sitting, eating a bowl of soup. I handed her a $20. "Take this."

It was the wrong thing, I knew it immediately. Tears started to form in her eyes.

"No!" she said. "Give it to charity, give it to someone..." She stopped herself. She was the one in need.

I felt sick, but I pushed forward. It was too late not to have this conversation, not to face the sad reality of the situation, mine and hers, have and have not.

"Please," I said, "We need to help each other, we need to be able to ask each other directly for help," I said. "I'm just giving money to organizations that help people in trouble, like you. We're neighbors, why can't we ask each other directly for help when we need it? We're going to have to learn to do that."

"Here," she said, anxious to rid herself of her feelings of helplessness, desperate to suddenly. She reached for my bowl on the table, to clear it. "Let me help you..."

"No," I said. I took the bowl and put it on the counter. I felt afterward that I should have let her take it, let her be useful.

"It'll be fine," I said, as I turned to her. Then, it occurred to me: Maybe it wouldn't be, certainly not right away. Maybe, after Friday, she'd have nowhere to go.

"Let me give you my number," I said, grabbing the pen off the counter, pulling a receipt out of my wallet.

I put my name and number down, my e-mail. I thought maybe I should just give her my address, in case she had no phone, no Internet. She could know a place that would take her in, a stranger and a strange place, but someplace.

She took the paper willingly, unlike the $20.

"Thank you," she said, gratitude in her eyes. "I'm Devorah."

"I'm Stephanie," I said.

We walked out of the cafe together. She was headed across the street, to the library.

"Thank goodness it reopened," I said.

She nodded, "Yes," she said. "I feel almost normal there."

"Good-bye," I said. "Good luck, stay warm."

"Thank you," she said. "Thank you very much."

I didn't even give Devorah a gold star. It just didn't seem like nearly enough.  

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Great Susan Fox

I remember meeting Susan Fox in Prospect Park. I'd just moved to Park Slope with my one-year-old son, and was taking a walk down toward the dog pond when a bright-eyed blonde introduced herself and took down my information for a new parents group she was starting, Park Slope Parents. I remember signing up at work and immediately cancelling when my inbox become inundated with information and requests and news.

Somehow, over the last decade, Susan has continued to build a network of amazing Park Slope parents, people who have the power to collaborate to do anything, if only they could be coordinated and given direction.

Susan is that amazing director. Her ability to deftly manage a neighborhood of managers was never in better evidence than this past week. When devastation struck our city by the powerful storm called Sandy, Susan's strong voice rang out simple directives on what we, the fortunate, able-bodied, monied mass of Park Slopers, needed to do to help. The Old Stone House became a hub last weekend, a physical manifestation of the virtual network she has run for so long, that I only recently had the nerve to sign up for again.

As I sit paralyzed by the magnitude of help needed in our city, overwhelmed by guilt and not sure how to do my bit, I am so grateful to that beautiful blonde light that emanates from my amazing neighbor and inspires me to do what I can.

I placed a gold star on Susan as she managed the teams of volunteers at the Old Stone house. She deserves so many more, for always trying, never giving up, for helping so many every day in so very many ways.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Cafe Faith

I stumbled upon Two Moon Art House & Cafe while waiting for my oil to be changed across the crowded expanse of Fourth Ave.

It seemed like a casual place, with a man painting a red wall along the back. The lovely girl who served me had a bright smile and nearly forgot to charge me for my Americano. The money seemed an afterthought. It almost felt like I shouldn't pay,  like I was more a guest in a private home. It felt good, comfortable, easy.

I picked up a flyer about an "Americana Passover." With just a glance, I knew. It was an attempt at creating The New Religion, the meaningful one, the alternative to the customs we grew up with that seemed hollow, the one that would give those of us searchers the community we were searching for.

As I clutched the flyer, I shared a look with the bright-smiled girl, a mutual understanding: we were in the same boat.

"Are you Jewish?" I asked, imagining she was a defector from my same group, looking for some new twist on old traditions.

She shook her head no.

"I was raised Catholic by atheist parents." She shrugged. I laughed.

" is tough," I said, in sympathy with her and with her parents, trying to give their child something they couldn't buy themselves. It would be so much easier, wouldn't it?

I looked around and gestured to the space, "Is this place yours?"

"Yes," she said, nodding. "I'm one of the owners."

I'd figured, having heard her address the painter and someone who walked in to talk about practicing for a show. From the look of it, Two Moon housed a little bit of everything from music to films to food and wine, even a new religio-political movement called Organs of State that was behind the Americana Passover to inspire like-minded engaged people to gather around food.

Their slogan, "Come Dine and Remake America" was hopeful and proactive, a seeming solution in itself unlike so many other modern movements.

"I'm impressed with what you've done here," I said. "It looks like you've already created a azzeo, community."

"Thank you!" she said, "We're trying..."

"I can see that," I said, and handed Joyce Pisarello a star. She and her co-owner, Danielle Mazzeo, are filling their space with artists and actors and thinkers and doers. They are creating faith in the most modern way: cafe-style.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Kristian Orozco- Trying to Raise Boys

I sat down with Kristian Orozco to gain some insights on raising my crazy 9- and 11-year-old boys, and he put it to me straight, albeit sympathetically.

"The difficulties we have with our children often stem from our own personal 'lacks and gaps,'" he said.

I laughed. I'd come to this conclusion myself, although I hated to admit it. I'm not consistent, I love to live on the fly, I hate to set limits for myself, I hate to sit still...the list of my flaws that show up in my children go on and on.

With his organization, The Boyhood Project (, Kristian hopes to foster an environment in which people can "raise emotionally intelligent boys to transform the world."

Emotional intelligence starts, of course, with parents' recognition and admission of our own contributions to the home environment.

Kristian says clearly, with great sympathy in his eyes, "We have to realize that our own emotional shortcomings make up our parenthology. Sometimes we don't realize that  a child's behavior is a reflection of our own belief system."

The Boyhood Project is all about creating what Kristian calls a "center column" between the strict, punishing ways of the last generation and the often too-permissive ways of today's parents.

"Where did we get the crazy idea that to get kids to do better, we have to make them feel bad?" Instead of just praising kids, which makes them dependant on your approval, he suggests we stop hovering and controlling our children and "start letting them know they are accountable for their own success."

Parents taking responsibility is the first step toward raising kids who take responsibility.

"It's hard," Kristian said, again looking at me with big, sympathetic eyes. "But we have to try."

Gold star to Kristian for trying and for helping others, including me, do the same.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A New McCarthyism

What I saw in Andrew McCarthy's eyes and the set of his mouth many decades ago in Class is what shone through last night, as he read from his new memoir, The Longest Way Home.
Listening to Mr. McCarthy and, later, in the middle of the night, reading the words he put down for the ages, it was clear he possesses that most rare thing, the thing that separates true artists from others: a vulnerability and an openness, a strange twisted lack of fear about expressing one's fear of relationship.
I giggled as he spoke, bold and slightly sheepish as usual, about coming to terms with the paradox of loneliness even in the midst of love, his book's main theme, downstairs at McNally Jackson on Prince St. I was as unabashed looking deep into his eyes as I had been looking at them on so many screens as a teenager.
I came clean in the Q&A: "I loved you in all your movies," I said. "There was something so different about you, something that came through, which is why I guess you got so many roles." I asked him how he chose, how he knew how to act like himself, like the person he said he'd found when he first played the Artful Dodger from Oliver in a school production at 14.
He balked slightly at the question, offhandedly pegging his too-early success on a series of actions over which he had little control.
"We all really stumble through..." he said. "We don't choose our stories so much as our stories choose us." But still, he acknowledged, staring upward in thought, "When I look back at those movies, I can see it: the essence of me was so unguarded."
The ability to let down one's guard with others and still maintain one's sense of self requires an intense effort of the kind Mr. McCarthy has travelled the world alone to try to figure and put forth. It is not easy, as he shows, to open one's heart wide and let in the people who can take us the places we want to go.
"Fleeting connections that that may seem unimportant and transient at the time can have a huge affect on one's life," he said.
I felt vindicated and happy by the evening, by finally being able to figure what it was that had drawn me to Mr. McCarthy all those years ago. I handed him a big gold star as he penned his name illegibly inside my copy of his first book, his tale of "One Man's Quest for the Courage to Settle Down."
He smiled that sexy sideways smile and put it on his belt. "My daughter will be excited I got a gold star," he said, with clear love in his eyes, unguarded as usual. With such honesty, it is clear that this Brat Pack heartthrob will most certainly succeed in his great second act as a writer.    

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Small Business, Large Hearts

When I walked in to the LLL Deli on Love Lane in Mattituck, New York, I was hopeful. I wanted a turkey and swiss sandwich, just like I'd make myself at home if I'd had the time and energy.

Handwritten signs promised I could get just that: simple tasty affordable food in exchange for cash. Tina and Kevin Langer open their doors Monday through Friday at 5:30 a.m. It made sense, then, the sign that made me laugh:

Good Morning...Let the Stress Begin!

"I like your sign," I told Tina with a smile.

She just shook her head slowly. "It's like that, every day. You get up, and you're just not ready for a while."

"But then it gets better?" I asked hopefully.

"Yep," she said with a slight affirmative nod as she spread mayonnaise on my roll. "It does. You wake up."

There were pictures on the wall, many of the day USA Network's Royal Pains was being filmed out front.

"It's supposed to be set in The Hamptons, but..." Tina and I both laughed. The North Fork, where we were standing, is the far less fancy and expensive of the peninsulas that jut out from the East End of Long Island.  

"They had a catering truck, but some of 'em were nice, like the main guy, he'd come in and buy food from us," Tina said.

I smiled. I'd met the "main guy"-Mark Feuerstein-once. He went to school with my husband at the "tony" Dalton school. He is one of those gracious successful people. They exist here in New York as they exist everywhere. It is nice to hear tales of people from different places and different circumstances seeing through to one another.

The Langers were lovely. They made me a great sandwich and I gave them cash--and gold stars.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

New Beginning

Every year at this time it is the same: I have to remember anew what I forgot. I have to remind myself to remind myself of all the things I learned before, all that I figured in great moments of epiphany. I am a writer so as to record all those thoughts that seem so crucial when they arrive. But then I cannot quite put my finger on where I might have written The Answers, in which notebook, in what computer file. I must figure and write them anew, these musings on what might be The Way, or at least My Way. I must not be embarrassed that I am attempting to determine this thing called Life every day as if for the very first time.

As the warm air grows cool, and the birds practice their flight skills for long journeys elsewhere, I am charged again with how to move forward in good mental and physical health, how to help my family and friends and neighbors do the same. The lazy restful days of summer are a distant memory, replaced by schedules and homework and grand schemes for projects that (cross your fingers) might actually see the light of day. It gets harder and harder to jump out of warm covers into the chill dark mornings and rev up for what needs to be done. But then I hear the birds, so alive and singing their repetitive songs, and I am shamed into rising to search for my own proverbial worm, to try in whatever ways come to me, in whatever ways I can.

I tell myself:

This is the year that I will reward my own valiant efforts, no matter what the outcome. 

This is the year that I will reward others' valiant efforts, no matter what the outcome. 

This is the year in which I vow to judge myself and others less harshly, the one where I will learn to pay attention and appreciate and expect the best, but not be angry and disappointed if the best is not achieved as I'd imagined. 

This is the year I will attempt to place a shiny gold star in as many people's hands as possible to remind them that trying hard is all they can do, and that it is enough. 

Thank you for all your love and kindness and patience. Remember anew every day to reward yourself and others for trying.