Tuesday, November 25, 2014

I am not in enough trouble to warrant police attention.

Four reasons to be grateful, right here.
There's a line in "TheMan with Two Brains" when widower Steve Martin is trying to figure out if a new relationship is a mistake. He appeals to a portrait of his deceased wife: 
"Just give me a sign." 
The house shakes, lights blow, the portrait spins, there is moaning, "No! No! No!"
"Just any kind of sign," says Steve Martin.

I've been thinking about gratitude. 

I am grateful. My God knows that I am. And when my God turns out an extra effort - when my children travel safely from one place to another, or a friend's bad luck turns around, or a biopsy comes back negative, or a loved one soldiers through a tough stretch and falls into feathers - I am extra grateful.
And, when bad things do happen, I don't ask my God to "take care of it," because my God is not a genie or Samantha from Bewitched. I just ask for strength.
Here's another
We count our blessings, I shared with my God, but we take them for granted, too. We get used to our blessings. If too much goes right for too long, complacency is what happens next, when we are surprised by things that go wrong and maybe even a little pissed off.
And so, my God, I wondered, how shall I say thank-you?
A few minutes into this pre-dawn exchange, a siren rose, and was followed by another. We are a tiny town. We rarely have sirens – or, as Officer Bubba refers to them, si-reens – and it seemed appropriate to pause. 

Was this my Steve Martin sign? Well, maybe not, but I've decided to make it one. 
Because, while I don't feel guilty about my good fortune, I am wondering about someone in my town, right now, who is in enough trouble to warrant police attention. It's not me.
According to my God, that is because gratitude isn't always about what is, as much as what isn't. 
To wit:
I am not in enough trouble right now to warrant police attention. 

Nor am I without power, or a laptop, or heat, or food.
I didn't leave the door open last night and lose the cat.
"You'd better not lose me."
Or wake up with a hopeless problem
None of my children called to tell me they were laid off or ended a relationship
My parents are not sad or unhealthy
Nobody I love was diagnosed with a terrible illness.
My friends are not in trouble with their lives.
I didn't hurt someone's feelings by mistake.
Everyone I care about is in a place where I can reach them
I am not starting a day of things that will test me, or my character, or my sense of humor.
There is not a single abusive person I must deal with in my life.
I am not going to a job that I hate.
A Mummy to be grateful for

Gratitude is sometimes what isn't.
And so, I plan to show my gratitude this week:

I'll smile at a nervous teenager in a new job.
And show an elderly person kindness who doesn't expect it.
I'll buy a card and send it to someone who is down but doesn't know why
And listen to someone carefully enough to hear what they aren't saying.
I'll tell someone out of the blue, not that I love them, but why.
I'll remember that up or down, everything is right now.
I'll say to young parents who are teaching small children to respect others: "Nice job. Really."
And let someone go in traffic
I'll answer the phone when a friend or family member calls, no matter what.
I'll look harder, hug and smile more. 
I'll seize moments I often let fly from my life, forgotten.

It is against the law to include fewer than two pictures of 
Gus in any post where he is mentioned at all.







I'll remember it's the tiniest of unasked for gestures that make a person know they have been noticed, and heard.

To my husband, children, friends, family, and with all my heart, to readers who have found this blog Worth Mentioning, it's not enough, but just the same...
Thank you.

Monday, November 10, 2014

In whose eyes?

When I was a young professional in Boston, I couldn't commute to work without passing construction sites, doorways, or canteen trucks where clutches of men hung out every day. Whether they were black, white, Latino or striped, I knew I was going to be noticed and hasselled. 

When the attention came, it was not flattering. It was not affirming. I didn't feel more attractive because these men found me "hot". It made my heart race, and one late evening, it made me cry to think I might not reach my car without help.

It didn't get easier just because it happened all the time. When a man calls out, when another joins in, your normal radar becomes skewed and you are always aware that the worst could happen as easily as it probably won't. 

And it hasn't changed. "I keep my head down," says my oldest daughter, who teaches violin to inner city kids in Cleveland, "and one hand on my pepper spray." Said my younger daughter, whose former commute required her to travel a stretch between the bus and subway in Boston, "It gets sketchy." 

In my reading last week, the subject of unwanted attention that you must deal with was interestingly juxtaposed against the attention that you can't get anymore.

On one hand, the now gone-viral "catcall video" had been seen, exhaustively dissected and in inevitable backlash, critiqued for its racially selective portrayal of what women really confront when they walk the city.  (Long story short, people wondered why the white douchebags had been edited out, possibly leaving the impression that only blacks and Latinos were doing the "calling". Well, not only isn't that the impression we probably have, but here's an example of a white uber-douchebag, who is probably more of a threat than those guys on the street because he is also rich and self-important).

Later that day. 

In a piece called, "The Case of the Vanishing Woman: Ayelet Waldman on the Invisibility of Turning 50", Cafe.com writer Deborah Copaken detailed her conversation with Ayelet Waldman – an intelligent, funny, and insightful writer – about this notion of becoming, as Ms. Waldman refers to it, "invisible". 

When I say I read this piece as if I expected to be blown away by a brilliant punch line – because, really, she couldn't be serious – I'm not kidding. But here is a quote:

"There's this whole thing going on right now about guys in the street harassing women," said Ms. Waldman, referring to the catcall video. "I get that, when you're a young woman, it can be really demoralizing to walk through the streets of New York ...and yet, I am so flattered when that happens to me at this point. It's so sad, because I'm a feminist! It’s ridiculous, I know. But when somebody says to me, "Oh, sweetie, you're shakin'!" I feel like, "Okay, I still got it!"

She's not alone.

Tira Harpaz is a graduate of Princeton University and Fordham Law School and the mother of three children. She was formerly a Senior Attorney at Davis Polk & Wardwell and she is currently the founder and president of CollegeBound Advice, an independent college counseling firm.

Last year, Ms. Harpaz made an observation similar to Ayelet Waldman's in her piece for Salon.com. "The first time I felt invisible was on a train to New York City, about nine years ago. As I eased into the end seat of a three-seat row, the 30-something man sitting in the window seat glanced up at me. It was a brief glance, but it conveyed disappointment and complete disinterest...as days and years went by, I realized that the look was everywhere."

To hear talented, vital women discuss their fading value in terms of their age or physical appearance  made me wonder:

In whose eyes do we consider ourselves invisible?

I know so many women, fifty and older, who possess such confidence in their histories, skills, gifts, talents, wisdom, presence and intellectual contribution, they don't just turn heads when they walk into a room, they engage minds, and capture hearts.  And I know many confident, bright men, fifty and otherwise, who consider the way a woman feels about herself to be not just sexy, but beautiful.

And I know men who don't.
Who might be attractive.
But who are not sexy.
Or worth the time and preoccupation of women.
Who fear becoming invisible.

It was disturbing enough to know that bright, accomplished women feel endangered by an expiration date, but it was insulting to be spoken for by women who hold this view of  the rest of us. And yet, women agree. Women lament loss of purpose right along with their worsening vision and memories.

Many in my own circle of writer friends co-lamented Ms. Waldman's assertions of "senescence"; some made "half-serious" comments about being  "lucky" if, at a certain age, anyone catcalls you at all.

What is wrong with us?

If we are an ageist society, we are an ageist society because we have allowed others to assess and value us for the wrong things.  But to tell ourselves – and our daughters and sisters and friends and mothers – that "we" women outlive our time of true worth on the planet by about thirty years is worse than an anti-feminist position, it's sexist.

We can be feminists, and ask all the respect and equality in the world. But are we offering it to ourselves, first? Because for better or worse, it is self-perception that is reinforced by the outside world. 

In her Salon piece, Ms. Harpaz discusses the new awareness and perceptions that evolved of the train revelation. They are attitudes I hold myself, but  importantly they are those I hope to see my own daughters cultivate:

"We have to fight or ignore our insecurities and look for opportunities to become visible – run for local office, get on a community board, start a program – and find ways to take control of our lives. I have found that when I reach out to old friends, get involved in activities I’m interested in and share my thoughts through social media or in person, I feel that people are really listening to and seeing me – not the anonymous older woman who is ignored time and time again, but the youthful, creative, interesting me who still lives inside."

Exactly. In other words, be who you know you are – in your own eyes – and not some guy's on the train.





Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"I want to do hair"

Woman and her stylist-therapist
I've been reminded of a hard thing I want and love, but which I have been avoiding because of its potential to be very, very painful.  Naturally, this occurred at the salon. 

I met with my stylist on Saturday morning after a week of unmet writing goals, with a head full of half-made plans for the upcoming week, and jumpy focus that had me on my own nerves. 

The thought of two hours in a chair discussing the sliver of things that my stylist and  I have in common just seemed like work. Worse though, would have been to say, "You know, I  just don't feel like talking today, okay?" The "what's wrong" question this would have generated was beyond me. So instead, I soldiered over to my chair and prepared to get my chat on.

"So," said my stylist, lifting sections of hair, "What are we doing today?"
"You know, I don't know. I don't even feel like making a decision on my hair, so just do whatever you think will work. I trust you."
It was an atypical start to the session but she fell in and got stylist-serious. 
"Okay, first it should be shorter," she said.
"Agree."
"And I'm thinking let's do the caramel highlights."
"Okay."
"You need some angling toward the front."
"Whatever you think."

She left to mix the color and I opened my book.
She came back and went to work. A few minutes later, I watched what she was doing in the mirror.
She caught my eye and said, "So? Famous yet?"
"No. Not famous, and the writing thing is everywhere. I'm all over the place. Doing everything, doing nothing. Submitting my book that took me forever to write. In a week, I'll be opening 'thanks but no thanks emails' and  I'm trying to write short stories, and I'm trying to submit essays and everything I do feels like it's keeping me from something else —"
"Tilt your chin."
"—and I'm wondering what I really want out of this, and so I'm pulling back for a while. Taking stock. Less time on social media, less worry about stats and traffic and not meeting my fiction goals and not keeping up with my blog. I'm just tired, tired, tired. Period."

"So you're overwhelmed."
"I'm overwhelmed."

There was a long pause. And then I said, "I have no right to be overwhelmed. I have the life I want, I have great kids, husband, friends. I can write whatever I want. I've been published where I didn't think I would be. But last week, I had an editor turn down my essay. She said, 'I'm afraid this doesn't quite work,' and I thought, 'she's right. It didn't work because it has no me in it. It was empty.' What the hell is my problem?"

"You sound like me when I decided to stop teaching."
I looked at her in the mirror. "Tell me."
"I was a teacher. I studied classical music, and got my teaching degree. I worked with kids on the violin. Every day I woke up to a stomach ache. Kids didn't want to play. Parents didn't make them practice. I forgot what the point was."
"You taught the violin?"
"Yes, and I hated every minute of it."
"You taught the violin?"
"It sucked. And then, one day I drove by a hair salon and remembered how I did my friends' hair when I was younger and how happy it made me to create and make other people happy."
"And," I said.
"Well, I remembered what that felt like - to love something - it made me realize that I didn't love what I was doing now at all. I thought, 'Well, I want to do hair,' but...okay, how do I say this, hair stylists back then were sort of...there was a stereotype. Did I want to be seen as someone who was doing hair because she couldn't make it in her profession? Did I want to go to my parents and say, 'guess what, you know that college education you paid for?' No, I did not."

I imagined my twenty-something stylist driving past that salon, not wanting to want that.

"But," she said, tools poised, "I did want to be happy, and I was not that either. And even with the tears and frustration and stomach aches, I was still doing it. And then I said, 'enough.'"

For a long time, I wondered if I was holding onto my book to avoid starting another. The truth is, the harder you love something, the harder will come the rejection. If writing an impossible scene or sharp line of dialog made me feel alive, it was hard to think the failure to publish it wouldn't kill me. 

Writing essays is easy love and publishing them is instantly gratifying. Not publishing them stings like it stings to sit in your car on a cold morning before the heat comes on. Eventually, you'll forget you were cold. 

But easy love can be habit forming, while the hard love stands there and says "still here."

I want to do hair.

I didn't say that to my stylist. 

But I did say this:

"I'm not writing new fiction right now. I miss that."
"So, do that."
"I'm worried about how my book will do."
"So you're avoiding it."
"And I don't have time for non-fiction."
"So stop for awhile."
"And if my book fails, I'll write another one but what if that one fails too?"
"Tilt your chin."

I left the salon with two things: First, a reminder that what we love, but which may never love us back, doesn't go away. Whether we have time or freedom for it or not, whether we crave or fear its joy, it comes back and says, "still here." And yet, to feel an unending  pull toward it is better than feeling no pull toward easier things.

The other thing I left with was much shorter hair than I would have asked for.  But it was what my stylist thought I needed. On Saturday, she also knew that I needed an example of someone who figured out a hard love, faced her obstacles and said, "Screw it. I want to do hair."

I still can't believe she taught violin. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Kick-ass kid.


Jacqueline Bonifant, 10/11/14 at the Chicago Expo , Chicago, IL.
Four years ago, our daughter Jacqueline ran in the Cape Cod Marathon. I was stupid-impressed, and blogged about watching her go through the process from registration to bouncing on her heels at the starting line.  (Further down is that post from 2010). 

About a year ago, she announced that she would run with a friend in the Chicago Marathon to benefit teen oncology at the Advocate Children's Hospital in Chicago.  She has been typically low-key about the ambitious decision and quiet about her training progress. Ambivalent at first about raising funds, she exceeded her campaign goals just last week.

Six weeks ago, when  it would have been ideal to shuffle a few life priorities to focus on training, she started a new job and moved into a new apartment. Her training became tough to keep up with.  A stubborn ankle problem was back. Nonetheless, on the phone last night, she was focused, happy, upbeat - and ready. 

"I just want to finish," she said, something marathoners say when what they would really like, please, is to finish with a kick-ass time. 

Today she started running at 8:23, and finished at 1:24, five hours and one minute later. 

I don't need a reason to admire my kids. I wake up in the morning admiring my kids. But this madly driven and frankly, sometimes ever-so-slightly intimidating little girl just makes me shake my head and say, "Who knew?" But of course, we all knew: 


THIS IS ONE KICK-ASS KID.
  


From October, 2010


Here is class.
Here is determination.
Here is confidence in the making.

A few months ago, Jacqueline quietly signed up to run in the Cape Cod Marathon and without fanfare, went about the business of “training.” Periodically, there were updates about her running schedule (twenty miles before dinner two weeks ago), diet regimens and other things she was doing to meet her goal. Most of it she kept to herself, as though the sudden need to bow out might present itself and would be easier to handle without having raised anyone’s hopes, including her own.

On Saturday, en route to our hotel in Falmouth she said, “I don’t want to say ‘after the marathon,’ anymore. I shouldn’t say that as if I already did it.”

Sunday morning, at 6:15, she checked in and received her bib. At 8:31, a cannon sounded and she was off, her black and orange hair ribbons visible for only seconds before she was engulfed in a crowd of 1100 runners that rolled from the start line like a wave.  Her only goal she said at the beginning was to finish, to reach the end of the 26 mile route. She could have focused on the higher goal of placing, but she opted to bring it down a peg, zeroed in, and went for it.

I was at the finish line a good hour and a half before she appeared. Many runners sprinted to the finish, others limped purposefully across, some collapsed. One had to be carried. At around five hours and twenty minutes, Jacqueline rounded the corner several blocks away. Her pace was steady. She passed me, looked at me with a huge smile of “I did it", then crossed the line, arms raised. She was wrapped in a blanket and awarded a medallion. I was too awed to cry. At first. 

Finally+there.jpg (320×480)
This is the Jacqueline Bonifant route to confidence: Consider what you can probably do with very hard work. Then shut up and do more. Be constantly surprised by your own strength. Be motivated for the next challenge that comes along. Repeat above steps.

Sometimes, in spite of all our good thoughts, high hopes, solemn prayers, heartfelt beliefs and lofty expectations, our children don’t accomplish what we think/hope/pray/believe/expect they will, but more.

Jacqueline on Sunday, one month and four days after her twenty-first birthday, was Jacqueline squared.

Congratulations, my girl. I am beyond proud of you.










Thursday, September 25, 2014

Awesome Daniel the car guy

This is not Daniel, but I'll bet he
has a special chair for his foot.
Car specialists scare me.

I'm intimidated by them because after I fall in love with the perfect vehicle, I can't deal. I can't tough-talk trades and money down while I am thinking I wonder if there are cup holders in the back seat.

It's why I've been with the same car make for fifteen years. Better the dealer you know than the dealer you don't. 

But last spring, I became intrigued by another car I'd passed on the highway. I found a dealer, scheduled a test drive and sat down to a discussion of how to "put me in that car": what did I want to pay per month, what did I expect for my car, would I lease or buy, etc. "I'll be right back," she said.

"I'll be right back" only means one thing, which is that now you'll talk to a Sales Manager and, if you're like me, instantly forget how to add or think on your feet.  

This one placed a foot on the seat of a chair across from me (do guys do this only to be intimidating?) and told me I would not get what I wanted for my car, and would not have a payment that low and would not be able to deal on the price of this car because it was "too hot" right now and yes, I might make a deal, but not the one I wanted. "You're right," I said, and left.

Last week, six months later,  my phone rang.

"Hey! Is this Susan?" asked an exuberant twenty-something who spoke in exclamation points and sounded very much like my son (lucky him).
"It is."
"Hey, Susan! It's Daniel from (name of dealer)!! Are you still looking for a (name of car)?"
"I'm not sure."
"Okay. If you were, what color would you want?"
"Gray."
"Okay, awesome. Like a light gray? Dark?"
"Like a charcoal."
"Okay, sweet. Price range?"
"It depends. I'm kind of happy where I am, now."
"Okay, okay. That's awesome, too."

And so on.

"Has anyone called you since you were in?" he asked.
"Not really."
"I can't believe no one's called you."
"No one has."
"You know what? I'm going to find that car. I'm going to find that car right now. We're going to do this. We're going to do this today."
"I'm not in a hurry."
"I'm calling you before the end of the day and I'll have that car so you'll be near your phone, right?"
"Okay."
"Okay, sweet. I can make this happen."

An hour later.

"I have good news!"
"Tell me."

We made a test-drive date for Saturday.

"Okay, Daniel," I said with a serious face. "I am here to drive this vehicle and get a figure for my car. My husband will come back and make the deal."
"You won't be with him?"
"No. We don't do these things together anymore. I pick the car, he does the deal."
Daniel's face fell.
"Daniel, I just get in the way," I said. "I get emotional and then I get angry during the standing up and walking away part and it's just bad for our relationship."
"Okay, no worries. I get it. So, is he going to rake me over the coals, or what?"
"No, of course not."
"I mean is he going to be mean, or what?"
"No, he just does exhaustive research before we buy a car."
"Is he a big guy?"
"Not especially."
"Okay, that's fair. That's cool."

While we waited for the sales manager to get off the phone and come over to put his foot on the chair, I asked Daniel how long he'd been working there.

"Three months," he said.
"Wow, not long. You like it here?"
"It's awesome. I love these guys. But it wasn't what I planned."
"No?"
And without batting an eyelash, he said, "No, I mean. People think car dealers are sketchy. And I never thought I'd get through that. But then it's just really awesome when they work with you and see that you're not just total cheese, AND they can get a car they love, too. How awesome is THAT?"

The car sold to someone else. Within twenty-four hours, he'd found another.

And dozen phone calls and 71 texts later Daniel and I made the deal over the phone. No husbands. No sales managers.  

And here is why Daniel's dealership should want very much to keep him.  Because, with only natural enthusiasm for what he loves to do - find the most awesome car - he found common ground with his customer- even when he believed going in that they would assume  he was "sketchy." I know when he's far more experienced, he'll still lead with that excitement for  matching driver and car, and he will accomplish two things in the process: reverse that "sketchy" perception, and make a lot of money.

It's what happens when people do what they should be doing - matching their work with their gifts, much like: drivers with cars. 

It was a good deal. Daniel made money just by showing up, and I won't have to talk to a Sales Manager for at least three more years.  

And how awesome is THAT.







Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Strangers in my heart

At times of transition in my life - after a marriage, after a move, after a baby, after a child leaves, I get lost. I don't worry too much about it, everyone gets lost, but I don't sit around and wait for it to pass either. 

When I'm  sure that no one is listening, I say right out loud to my God, "If I promise to do something nice for someone who's struggling today, can you do me a favor and send down a little clarity?"

Do I know who I'm talking to? No. I only know I have some belief in a presence bigger than my own, and I know that this deal works, as long as I follow through on the fee: let someone go in traffic, compliment a stressed out mother on her patience, leave a 100% tip for a struggling server.

There has not been a time when I've sought the ability to cope, wished for clarity or insight, or wished these things for others, that I haven't found, in a short time, without even knowing when it arrived, that some solace has found me, or someone I love. 

No lights flicker, no clouds stir, no thunder rumbles. 
The cat doesn't run under the bed.
Pictures don't fall off the wall.
There are no spooky voices.

It's just this: suddenly, I'm less judgmental and more forgiving. Hopeful and optimistic, clear-minded and peaceful. One of our children might get good news, change a bad path, recover from an illness. A friend might emerge from a stretch of bad luck to catch a break. 

I don't have a formal religion. But faith, I have. 

It's a many varied thing, faith. How it comes, how it stays, how it goes, who has it, what it looks like.

Since I opened my eyes  this morning, I have been thinking of all the strangers in my heart who lost themselves along with their loved ones thirteen years ago.

"This cross was made from remains
 found at the site of the WTC"
I wonder if for some, and if forever, faith vanished that day. I wonder if others drew upon faith or found it for the first time as they groped their way through that day, and all the days that followed. When I consider what it must have been like to look to the future and find a vast, colorless hole in its place, I wonder what saved them.  

To all the strangers in my heart today, I say this: I have asked my God to deliver you the peace, comfort and hope for the future that I sometimes ask for myself.  I've asked that the lovely things which somehow find me in the shadow of a sad moment, find you, in the shadow of your remembered tragedy.   
Today, you need those things more than I do and I have faith that they will come. 

The fee of a good deed on your behalf is on me today. 



(Re-posted from September 11, 2012)


Sunday, September 7, 2014

Be outraged while you still can be

Outrage isn't pretty.

It's uncomfortable to be around.
It sounds scary. 
It looks scary.
We avoid people who are outraged.
We should avoid people if we're outraged.

We sympathize, we have opinions, we shake our heads, we get mad and post things on Facebook.

But outrage?
Nobody likes outrage.

I can't remember when I felt it last, that powerless, blind fury.
Whenever it was, I'm sure I moved swiftly to dial it down before making any decision or taking any action that might be regrettable.

Because, it feels bad to be outraged.
It makes your head hot and flushes your face. 
It makes your thoughts swim and your hands tingle.
Your breathing changes, you feel like a stranger to your mild self.

But all I feel, still, over James Foley and Steven Sotloff, is outrage.

And, while I believe outrage must be disposed of properly
like toxic cleaning products
I wonder if I should be so quick to dial it down, this rage. 

It's not often that I feel politically emotional.
It's not often that I stop in the middle of what I'm doing to cry for strangers.

God help us if new events drain our capacity for outrage
When that sleep of tired anger and limp sadness settles over us.
And takes the wind out of our outrage 
God help us when we don't stop to cry for strangers.

And today, I hope our intellectually, culturally, socially, mentally, economically diverse population, with all our well-intentioned, outspoken, measured, powerful and mild, especially the mild, can come together to feel at least one thing about the murders of two journalists who absorbed this attack on all of us:

Outrage.
Until some action of magnitude happens, that wouldn't come about if not for that one thing first, outrage.
Outrage is the only response.