Tuesday, January 13, 2015

An extra-small story

With effort, with effort,
 I will not buy this for Gus.
But I may need to buy an extra-small dog.
Here is an extra-small story that you'll like.
Occasionally, I go to Petco-Where-the-Pets-Go for the food that Gus, my writer-cat, likes as well as filters for his fountain which he doesn't like as much as the faucet.
Usually I pick up a toy or two because I imagine he will be checking for this when I come home. Actually, I know that's not really true, which is why I didn't buy him a Christmas cape in December. 
With effort. With effort, I didn't. 
At Petco, people are allowed to bring their dogs on leashes because, recall: 
Petco is where the pets go.
The dogs are usually well behaved enough, some are better behaved than the owners who don't pick up their excited dog's doodies left in the path of cat owners like me. But I ignore this because it's not: 
Petco, where the people go. 
The other day, a clutch of people stood with their leashed and sniffing dogs, while they chatted about God knows what, because I couldn't eavesdrop from the register. 
But nearby, closer to where I stood, a man the size of a shed crouched  on the floor before a display of glittery, bejeweled collars for "extra-small dogs." He frowned, chin in hand, picked up one collar after another, turned it over, tugged at it for give, put it back. It took a while (I let a couple of people go ahead of me), but finally, he chose a bracelet-sized, black velvet collar with pink sequins. 
With effort, he rose and headed to the register, still looking over his pick. He probably imagined his extra-small dog being excited about the purchase. Maybe he was recalling the dog's reaction to his or her extra-small Christmas cape. 

Even at Petco, where the pets go, people do little things worth mentioning. That one made my day.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Wearing jeans to the symphony and other ways to live out loud.

No, I don't lay out my clothes like this
every day. I just didn't feel like buying a
graphic and Gus wouldn't pose. 



I once received a card from my sister-in-law Christine which praised me for "living out loud."  It was special to be regarded that way, but it was also special because Oprah Winfrey hadn't yet started using the phrase every time she spoke, nor had it started to appear on every other cover of O Magazine.
I do live out loud. I lived out loud in particular two years ago, when I trailed a stranger in Boston to get the name of her perfume. She wrote it down for me on the back of a restaurant tab. I went home, looked it up, gasped at the cost, and half-seriously (half), put it on my Christmas list. When I received it I almost dropped and shattered  it in my half-shock. 
It's light and beautiful like a fragrant cloud and when I wear it I remember rich things I encountered before I discovered it, and those I have encountered since. I wouldn't trail a stranger for less. Once, I wouldn't have trailed a stranger for any reason but at some point, it was worth appearing odd to have that perfume. 
Which brings me back to living out loud. I am a person who has always dressed up for the symphony:  black dress pants, black heels, nice top, nice jewelry and of course, more recently, expensive perfume. 
A while back I would nudged my husband at the sight of someone in jeans and boots at the symphony and  said, "Nobody dresses up anymore. Nothing is special." 
A while back, I would have responded to the phrase of "living out loud" with, "As opposed to what, living in silence?" Because, years before I chased that stranger, I was that person - kind of jaded, kind of cynical,  kind of dumb and kind of smart. All dressed up and greeting the truth of simple, honest living with a snide response. 
I can't believe that I once behaved this way and still expected to attract friends, but anyway.
Along the way, enough to have earned that card, I've thought about this living out loud business, what it means and what it doesn't. Living out loud, is not about dressing appropriately for an experience meant for the senses.  It is about trading drama for grace and allowing hard truths to pass, while greeting and urging the gentle ones to stay.  It isn't about hiding behind correct formalities, but letting formalities cook off  so that the essence of experience can reach the senses. With others, it is about showing your belly, because any connection lacking the trust to do that isn't, as my father would say, "the real deal." 
It is about honesty. 
And so, I'm wearing jeans and boots to the symphony tonight. I'll add the nice jewelry and perfume, but I'm wearing jeans to the symphony. I'm going to listen to Brahms in my warm sweater and silky scarf. I will hear Don Quixote in flat soles and soft jeans. I will not be aware of the temperature while wearing uncomfortable clothes, or my correct posture in a too-small seat, and most of all, I will not be aware of whether or not I've won the approval of complete strangers. 
Living out loud is about remembering the best experiences with more heart than mind because your heart has perfect vision while your buzzkill mind is a keeper of information.

And, of course, it is about finding a delicious fragrance to bring it all back on demand. 




Wednesday, December 31, 2014

More than fourteen things I learned in 2014

"Wow, what a year."
---Writer cat, Gus Bonifant
With my entire being, I adore Christmas. I shake off stress, I smile, I hum, I hug and whistle off-key on purpose.  

Every 12/1, I slide papers and projects to the side and clear my schedule of all but essential appointments. I'm patient in heavy traffic and find the good in trying people. If I feel cross, I get over it. I tell people why I love them and leave 100% tips all over town.

I spend December panning for the best memories and this year's take was rich: an actual songfest around the piano (a few glasses of wine into the evening between us, but never mind), gifts that surprised someone into silence more than once, and cozy gatherings of people eager to be in each other's company. 

But enough is enough.
"You're welcome."
At the supermarket yesterday, and for the first time in six weeks, I didn't hear Madonna singing "Santa Baby" or yet another version of "The Christmas Song." I heard "Dancing on the Ceiling" by Lionel Richie.
 Good, I thought. Bring it. Bring all those other C+, tepid tunes from the seventies, too. Bring "Silly Love Songs, "Sad Songs" and "Reminiscing."
It is the big December morning after.

The refrigerator is full of foil wrapped items that are probably not "okay to eat" now, the unlit tree looks resentful, and the finally-silenced Christmas CDs are stacked and ready to be put back in a drawer which we will forget about immediately.  I am off restaurants for now and in fact, I believe I am actually craving raw vegetables today.

As our full house empties of people eager to get "back to normal," cheerful, easy spirits have gradated into the focused, all business mindset of jobs to do and places to be. New energy has begun to push us forward and the new year waits like an unopened gift.  

For now, and with hopes that you too, are remembering moments you could only imagine thirty-one days ago, I have been panning for the best things I learned – or practiced again – in 2014. 

Most of them have something to do with attitude. Not because attitude is important, but because attitude is everything.  

Herewith:

RELATIONSHIPS
  • The best  relationship advice I heard this year came from writer-friend, Dr. Margaret Rutherford , a therapist who suggests we can end many of our relationship problems with one question which is hereBottom line:  stop personalizing things that have nothing to do with you.
  • If you're hurt, bring it up. If you're irritated, let it go. We don't forget hurt. We won't remember irritation. 
  • The tiniest kind gesture can turn someone's mood and attitude around for a very long time. Think of that power you have. How  would it change your life to turn your own someone's mood and attitude around for a very long time?
  •   Let people make you happy. Let them go to some trouble for you. When someone offers you something to make your life nicer don't hand it back with "No, you don't have to" or by downsizing a compliment.  Accept the offering if possible, say thank-you and mean it.
  • If they ask for it, forgive people for things they didn't do on purpose and can't fix now. And if you've wronged someone, apologize.  "I'm sorry if you're upset" doesn't count.
COMMUNICATION
  • When people give you unwanted advice, they aren't telling you what you don't know, they're telling you what they have learned. It's better to say "I can see why you feel that way," than to tell them they're wrong. You're both likely right.
  • A mind can only expand by making room for the other side of things. You won't sacrifice your own point of view by understanding someone else's. Bonus points if you say this:  "So what you're saying is..." and then paraphrase correctly.
  • When your gut feeling fights with your wish to be agreeable, defend your gut feeling.  It will give you back your bravery and with it, the confidence you need to do everything better.
  • Don't interrupt. Everyone does it. Everyone should stop. I know someone who, when he interrupts, actually puts a knuckle to his lips so he won't keep doing it. Let's be like him.
PARENTING
  • Don't punish yourself for the times you dislike parenting, or even the kids themselves when they're wretched.  Nobody is likable all of the time and our good and bad feelings exist to make us appreciate both. When they're most trying, you'd still walk into traffic for them and that's what counts.
  • Embracing who and what our children are becoming can't happen without being willing to grow ourselves. It's one of the myriad ways they give back without knowing they're doing it.
  • If you must  dwell on parenting mistakes of the past, don't forget context. Remember that there were circumstances which coalesced to make you into that huge jerk that you became for that brief time. Few people wake up and say, "I think I'll be a huge jerk today."
  •  Be grateful that all of your parenting mistakes weren't worse and admit  them to your children.  Someday they will make their own mistakes, and they'll want to tell an approachable, knowledgeable person about them.  Be that person.
  • The worst thing entitled parents teach their kids is how to be liked by a small population of very tedious people and vice versa, how to alienate large populations of people worth knowing.
PERSONAL GROWTH
  • Don't ignore parts of yourself that you don't like. Fix them. Don't call the puzzle done when there are still pieces under the couch.
  •  If you're aging and fear you're losing your looks, don't disappear with them. Remember: there were things about your nature and personality that made your mother love you when your teeth were too big for your face and you were cutting your own hair. There probably still are.
  •  It's better to understand powerful things that only older people know, than cling to what you think you have in common with younger people.
  • Be your own buddy. You have a 24/7 voice inside telling you the truth of things, including what you deserve. Don't let others talk over it. Don't confuse fear which hurts, with truth, which heals. It's time to find that inner peace you've been making fun of. It works.
  • We shouldn't say we don't care what others think of us. Everyone cares about somebody's opinion. It's learning to ignore the right ones that frees us.   
Thank you for visiting in 2014  and helping me grow the blog. It is Worth Mentioning that many of you brought friends this year in numbers which surprised me into silence and I love you for that.

But mostly, I cherish the possibility that in some way, I've made your day, or any part of it just a tiny bit nicer.

Be loving, be safe, be happy in the coming year.

Love,
Susan

Here is my picture of the last sunrise of 2014
Everyone may be a writer, but clearly,  not
everyone's a photographer.




Tuesday, December 9, 2014

It's the holidays. Here's a tip.

Make someone's day.
It's the holidays.
When I was in college, I was a server at the legendary Durgin Park restaurant in Boston.  I only worked twice a week, but they were fourteen-hour days and it was excruciating to look at the clock at 1:00 and know I had nine hours left.
I tried hard, but I was terrible at it. I had trouble yelling, "Hot behind ya!", I couldn't deal with the sulky bartender's insults, and I couldn't do that stacking of plates thing on my forearm. The night I tried, one of the prime ribs I was carrying tilted, dumping au jus into the lap of a business guy who became furious and made me cry in the bathroom.
It was the penultimate serve of that long day, and the bill for the large party was sizable. My tip, of course, was $0.
The last party of the day left without paying and my boss took it out of my pay. 
It was the first and last time I quit a job without notice. 
A couple of years ago, I became writer-friends with Jacqueline Tierney DeMuro who maintains a blog called Ambling and Rambling , about the things and people she encounters as a restaurant server. Her writing is casual and comfortable and though her blog is sprinkled with posts not related to the serving industry, when they are, I read and think about her experiences. 
I only needed that one year at Durgin Park to develop a lifelong appreciation for restaurant workers. They work hard, they deal with countless aggravations, in the kitchen as well as on the floor, and even if most people are gracious and nice, one self-important jerk, one short-staffed evening, one wobbly prime rib can send a day toppling. 
Jacqueline's observations have only affirmed my respect for all servers.
It's the holidays. It's time to say thank you.
I'm proposing we all do something for our server community and for ourselves too, and it is this: pick a restaurant and take someone to lunch or dinner. Order as usual, and then, leave a 100% tip on the total. Then leave. Don't lurk, or wait by the door to be thanked.
Peering from the sidewalk is permitted, as long as you're not seen. If  you're the commenter type, come back here, report on your mission and get your praise coin.
I challenge everyone reading this blog today to do that, for two reasons:
You'll lift the spirits of whoever has served you, and who knows? You might be putting a small financial woe to rest for him or her. Equally important, you'll lift your own spirits to know you really are as gracious and nice as you tell your own kids to be. 
However and whenever and wherever, write out that amount, total it, draw a little picture of a heart, or a snowman or whatever, and be on your way.
But do it. 
It's the holidays. Say thank you.


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.