Researchers at UCLA believe they are close to identifying a gene that determines a person’s psychological “resources”—optimism, self-esteem and mastery (the feeling that you can master your environment and achieve what you want). These 3 resources have been shown to help people weather stressful events and beat back depression. Because these traits tend to run in families, scientists had suspected a genetic component.
I am the most optimistic person I know. As a matter of fact, I’ve been accused of having my head up my ass; I am always so certain things will work out just fine. And yet my parents were not the most optimistic on earth. Both firmly believed that success comes only with hard work and if you’re lucky…a bit of good luck. In terms of “see it be it” and the laws of attraction, not so much.
Both my grandmothers were fatalists. From the day she turned 62, Grandma Ferderbar, when asked, “How are you, grandma,” would inform you that this would be her last year on earth. Her (pick one or mix and match) heart, stomach, brain, liver—were killing her. She lived to be 98—in relatively good health until the very end when passed away peacefully in her sleep.
Grandma Rose, my mom’s mom, saw danger in every shadow. A brave soul who crossed the ocean as cargo on a freighter, from Eastern Europe to Ellis Island, at the age of 17 and all by herself, was fed a litany of misinformation and alternative facts en route so preposterous they could have been fabricated by Sean Spicer, but were relayed to grandma via kvetches in babushkas—kinda the same thing really, without a podium.
“Avoid stepping on sidewalk grates. There are slave traders underneath just waiting for a girl like you.” Being sold into “white slavery” was a predominant theme in my grandma’s repertoire of potential calamities, and she feared for our safety until she passed away at the age of 99. Other than a few bad marriages and a timeshare fiasco, none of us have thus far been enslaved.
So where does my cockeyed optimism come from? (Only in Latin is it incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition. Churchill knew it when he said sarcastically, “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”) Perhaps my sense of optimism comes from Winston Churchill, which is also where I go for political humor and scorching bon mots.
I digress. (Have you ever noticed how much Boxer dogs all look exactly like Churchill?) If it’s not genetic, is optimism a cultivated trait? And if so, what were the factors that contributed to my big fat rose colored glasses? I can’t identify exactly what it was, but I can tell you what is wasn’t about my formative years that may sweetened the kitty of my outlook; Catholic grade school.
We were not encouraged to be happy. Our mental wellbeing was of no concern—the polar opposite of the “everyone wins a trophy” pathology prevalent today. Zero shits were given for self-esteem, how well we socialized with others or how we felt, unless we were feeling sick, in which case John the janitor would be summoned to bring a coffee can full of Voban Vomit Absorbent, a sickeningly sweet pink sawdust thrown on vomit meant to prevent a catastrophic chain event from occurring in the classroom or at Mass, but which itself triggered the gag reflex.
Abject fear, loose bowels, anxiety and the desire to make it from grade to grade and out were about the best we could “hope for.” It was really more about survival (physically and existentially) than optimism. It was in the sixth grade that I began listening to Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and the Stones. Until then you might have argued that a steady diet of bubble gum pop influenced my outlook to the extent I believed a brand new pair of roller skates and a brand new key would bring me life everlasting and joy unparalleled, but in fact I was a clumsy child prone to falling down even when I didn’t have wheels strapped to my feet. I wasn’t a pessimist so much as realistic about my limitations.
Hopefulness and idealism are not exactly words one associates with Lou and Bob, and it only got worse in high school when I began reading Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot and Steinbeck. Funnily enough, it was at just this time I began to feel a warmth in the pit of my being—an inner heat that suggested a whole world of possibility was at my fingertips. I realized words could set me free.
Through the simple, elegant arrangement of words, I discovered that ugliness and sorrow could be managed; made sense of. I became painfully aware that great poets and authors had to work very hard to find the right vocabulary to fathom suffering, loneliness and grief—then to arrange it in such a way as to wrest some of the power away from the things that kill the soul of a man.
Even those who lost the ultimate battle with depression had moments of great clarity and joy—you can feel it when you read certain passages, and I am absolutely sure that in those moments, when they beheld their own formidable words laid end to end in sheer perfection, they felt optimism, a sense of wonder—perhaps even elation.
So maybe that is from where optimism comes. (It just doesn’t work as well as “where optimism comes from,” right?) When we learn how to manage our darkness perhaps we are letting in more light, and what is optimism, but light?
I’ve shared it before, but the following poem—a simple arrangement of words so powerful—has brought just enough light to me in moments of grief, anxiety and darkness, to chase away the shadows. And it has always left me with an overwhelming sense of optimism.
The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
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Charlotte is two years old! It seems like just yesterday that Feng Shui and Charlotte Nightingale was born, shiny and new, and the long uphill journey to promoting the novel had just begun. If I knew then what I know now…
You can spend 16 hours per day writing, or write for an hour or two before work and again before bed seven days a week, or write for 72 hours straight on the weekend, or combine all of these and the result will be the same: writing is the easy part. If your last name is not Rowling, King, Patterson or Grisham, a publisher will not support you the way you imagine a publisher will support you based on what we see in the movies and on TV, although the concept that non-syndicated columnist Carrie Bradshaw could afford to spend $15K a month on shoes is very funny.
There will be no multi-city book tour, launch parties, radio and TV appearances, newspaper and magazine articles, photo shoots, stylists, written word groupies or bus sides unless you organize and pay for them yourself. I’m not complaining (really). It’s just the way it is, which is that way no one tells you before you decide to become a novelist, because if they did you’d go to medical school or become a Navy Seal instead—you know, something comparatively easy.
I think people have this idea that writers sit around sipping from a bottle of scotch, cigarette dangling from our lips, which are painted the perfect shade of red to go with our slightly disheveled bed head, wearing silk pajamas all day while a handsome young manservant prepares poached eggs and toast any time we ask. It simply isn’t like that, although it should be.
When the book was finally published, after rounds and rounds of editing otherwise known as killing your darlings (absolutely as painful as it sounds), I thought I’d have a minute to breathe, get something waxed, maybe see a movie or visit with friends. But no. The work was just beginning.
I could tell you all that it entails, but I could write a frickin’ book in less time than that would take. Two years later (I totally thought Charlotte II would be written, edited, published and released by now) I am still promoting Charlotte I, but I am optimistic even though I haven’t written a word of Charlotte II. It is, however, all up here (#PointingToMyHead), so fear not if you’re dying to know what becomes of our girl and her zany cast of characters. It’s a’comin’…
Two years later, the interviews and speaking engagements continue, but now that I’m not frantic as a chipmunk hopped up on Miracle-Gro, I am actually enjoying it. Next week I’ll be with a gathering of women who are interested in talking about optimism, the predominant theme of the novel. They’ll be serving food and drinks, and I guaranty there will be laughter. If history is any indication, it will be at turns bawdy, emotional, giddy and empowering.
My very most favorite thing is visiting with readers who find hope and joy on my pages. Every single one of us has had our #CharlotteMoments, and those are the very things that make us strong and resilient. After reading the book thousands of times, editing, re-editing and editing again, I am renewed, motivated and utterly thrilled when I learn someone has found meaning and nuance that I didn’t consciously put on the page.
So thank you for hangin’ out with me, whether it has been a day or two years. If you’re here now it’s because we are friends, at least that is how I see it. I sleep well knowing you.
I’m offering a free Kindle download of Feng Shui and Charlotte Nightingale to anyone who subscribes to my (usually) weekly blog. How, you ask, is something of this magnitude possible?
Go to the top of this page and subscribe by entering your email and then clicking yes. (A few words of encouragement in the comments section always appreciated!) I’ll email you a link to your very own free Kindle edition of Feng Shui and Charlotte Nightingale (redeemable until midnight June 12) and you’ll be the first one on your block to get an alert when I post a new blog. (I would never share your email address with anyone.)
Have a great weekend and happy reading!
In the second grade when we finished a test we were made to stand beside our desks while the teacher walked up and down the aisles checking our work. One day, upon completing a spelling test, I glanced down at my paper and saw that I misspelled the word ninety. I quickly corrected my answer.
When Sister Melmarie got to my desk, her eyes narrowed. “Did you cheat on your test, Pamela?” she asked, accusation dripping from her wimple.
I stood there with 30 pairs of seven-year-old Catholic eyes upon me, thinking to myself I knew the answer. I just missed a letter, which I have now added. What in the hell is this broad’s problem?
“No,” I replied. I hadn’t copied from someone else’s test, I reasoned. I hadn’t cheated. I just squeezed an e in.
Sister grabbed me by the yoke of my plaid, pleated uniform and yanked me into the hall. “I want you to close your eyes and ask baby Jesus for forgiveness if you have lied,” she admonished, putting her face so closely to mine that I could smell communion wafer and what I assumed to be sacramental wine on her breath.
I wouldn’t have closed my eyes if a wasp had landed on my cornea. I stared defiantly at Sister Melmarie, but I did blink once, and in that instant I apologized to the baby Jesus in case he thought I had lied, but I hadn’t because I did not cheat. I knew the correct spelling of 90. I wanted to be clear with the lil guy as I had heard he could send me to purgatory if he felt like it and I did not want to float around for god knows how long—until the second coming—whenever that was going to happen (no one has ever been clear or correct on the exact time and date), with a bunch of unbaptized babies and other sinners whose fault it was not really that they were there.
“You will go to hell if you don’t close your eyes and tell Jesus you’re sorry,” she insisted, a layer of sweat forming on her upper lip as she bored a hole into my skull with her gaze. Hell? This nun was taking no prisoners. Nonetheless, I maintained the cool, eyelidless stare of a lobster. Had I the lawyerly skills then, which I have since acquired by paying special attention to the order part of Law and Order, I might have redirected and asked about her exact definition of cheating, but I just stood there with my eyeballs drying out.
“Very well,” she snapped when she realized I was never going to cave. She swatted me across my legs to hurry me back into the classroom as she got in one final shot. “I want you to think about what you’ve done here.”
I’d just lied my ass off with a straight face.
As lies go, it was a minor, victimless crime—correcting the spelling of a word on a second grade test, yet it bugs me 20 years later. (Once you start, lying becomes easier and easier.)
Since then I’ve had to forgo lying altogether (‘cept for about my age) because I don’t have the mental strongbox that allows me to keep track of shit I’ve said, so telling untruths would cause indigestion, anxiety and an overall sense of utter confusion. I said what when? That sort of thing.
There are white lies; little fictions meant to make others feel slim in their True Religions, smart, loved or like they can cook. I image there are grey lies, although you don’t hear much about them. “Yes, I remembered to pick up the diapers,” a woman snaps, pulling a U-turn and hauling ass back to Target for the Pampers she had forgotten because Target had just gotten in a very limited supply of Missoni dresses and of course she temporarily forgot she had a baby at home hello she is only human.
Then there are black lies—those whoppers politicians tell while evidence to the contrary plays out right behind them for all the world to see. It’s like the guy who gets caught with another woman, looks up at his wife standing at the foot of the bed, jumps up, naked, and says, “I did not have sex with that woman.”
“Aw, they all do it,” we say offhandedly about our leaders. “It’s part of the game.” Next time your fourteen year old says she did not take the Suburban out and get it stuck in a swamp and has no idea how it got there or why the police found it with her purse on the backseat, see if you feel as charitable toward her as you do toward the guy who tells you he’s for family values as they’re hauling him off to jail for having sex in an airport restroom with a methamphetamine dealer/male prostitute named Betty. “Kids will be kids,” you could tell yourself. “It’s part of the game.”
I’m guessing we hold our children, spouses, friends, coworkers and the barista at Starbucks more accountable for what they say than the people who actually effectuate changes in the world. Maybe not all their lies will kill us…exactly, but the best case scenario is that politicians are simply a really bad example for our children, in which case the best case is also a really bad case.
Used to be you could tell a child, with your head held high and a tear in your eye, “If you study and work hard, develop good leadership skills and always do the right thing, some day you could be President of the United States.”
The bar is substantially lower these days.
I just returned from my godson’s wedding in Jamaica and I promise you there was more heart, soul and far more beautiful people at those nuptials than anywhere in Great Britain during Pippa Middleton’s “event of the year.” The Brits may have feted foreign dignitaries and bluebloods, but the real representin’ was done in Montego Bay.
More than thirty people from around the world and all over the U.S. convened to celebrate the union of two souls who are so beloved it didn’t seem at all like a sacrifice for anyone to travel 27+ hours to be there. Amid the palm trees, warm sand and mojitos, a rainbow of African queens, Indian ranis and ranas, Latina goddesses, Polish princes and Midwestern nobility brought out the best in each other, reminding me why diversity moves the dial on our evolution as sentient beings. I suspect there was a fairly wide socio economic spectrum among the group, or maybe not. In flip-flops and bathing suits it’s hard to tell what someone drives, their income or how much square footage they inhabit.
The qualities on display in great abundance were kindness, compassion and respect. Whenever I marveled at the uniqueness of the situation—spending literally every waking moment with a gathering of people who were different in age, background and geography, and yet who felt more like family than family, the response was always the same. “What did you expect from Chad and Nolene’s friends?”
The bigger question is, what is it about someone that attracts such goodness? A week in Jamaica with this tribe provided illumination.
1. No judgment.
This wasn’t just a destination wedding. It was a vacation from snarkiness. At no time was there any body shaming in spite of the fact that we had wildly varying physiques and spent 99% of our time wearing only dental floss and sunscreen.
We were a glorious army of the unashamed and it felt good. The things I did notice about everyone’s appearance was the broadness of their smiles and the moony way the husbands looked at their wives as they walked toward them (of course the wives were usually carrying a couple of mojitos, but still).
Not once did anyone speak poorly of anyone else. Instead, I was regaled with stories of great affection and allegiance—individual highlight reels that featured only positive recollections, because that is how these dear ones perceive one another.
2. No drama.
Seven bridesmaids, monsoon conditions and spa staff, who on the day of the wedding operated on “island time,” i.e. “time is merely a concept and not a reality, mon,” and no one freaked out.
Maybe it was the day drinking, or maybe it’s because this particular group of lovelies have their priorities straight, but we were all together to celebrate love. Period. We were in a tropical paradise, rain or no, still paradise. We weren’t hungry, thirsty, homeless or in a war zone. When life is this good, accept it. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Smile. Hug the bride.
I’ve spent my life around women, but I wish I’d known more like these females early on in my womanhood. When Veronique discovered black make-up on the bodice of her blush-colored bridesmaid’s dress she didn’t have a meltdown. Someone brought her a cloth, she blotted up as much as she could and she was done with it. She was there to support the bride and have a good time. Now that’s a broad to love and adore.
I once had a friend who had to be hospitalized because her husband stepped on her shoe and left a scuffmark. Of course this same woman had to be carried when it rained so that her shoes would not get wet. I tried to explain that the reason we wear shoes is so that when it rains our feet do not get wet, but it was a lost cause.
3. Be hella silly.
Nothing says hakuna matata like a giant inflatable flamingo that is not allowed into the pool. “Wilbert,” the name Kristi gave the giant pool toy she brought for the occasion, sat on the deck presiding over water volleyball like a hyper alert pink line judge.
Cayshe, one of the resort’s more entertaining staff members, stopped by to ask whether he might mount Kristi’s goose at some point. We think he meant the big flamingo, but we can’t be certain.
There were jokes and dance moves and sideways glances that cracked me up a hundred times a day. Housekeeping had a way of origami-ing bath towels in the shape of elephants, swans and what I think were supposed to be hearts (we were, after all, in town for a wedding). Instead, one evening, we were greeted by what appeared to be giant vaginas on the middle of the bed. It made for lively breakfast conversation.
We were appalled and wildly entertained by a couple having sex in the pool one afternoon. We took turns wading over to where they were going at it, in front of the swim-up bar, and then reporting back on their “pillow talk.” We learned they were each married to someone else, she liked it from behind and holy shit why are we in this water with them?! We frequented the other pools after that.
4. All you need is love.
It was evident to anyone at all that Chad and Nolene love, respect and adore one another. It was equally clear that all the couples were deeply in love and in like, and that these were enduring unions and friendships that would stand the test of time. What was amazing to me was the love showered upon my dad and me.
We’ve known Chad since he was a little boy. With great pride we have watched him evolve as a man—exemplifying what is best at every stage. He has treated people with dignity and respect. He has always worked hard to attain worthy goals. He’s the kind of person you hold up as an example of all that is right with the world, and all that can change the world for the better. It only makes sense then, that he and Nolene would attract spectacularly wonderful friends.
To be included among a group of people who radiate such positivity, graciousness, goodness and generosity of spirit was to be honored. I can’t remember ever attending a wedding and walking away with the biggest gift.
Thanks Chad and Nolene, Andre, Serena, Jaye, Kristi, Veronique, Anne, Mary, Yasmin, Marisol, Melissa, Renisha, Renee, Belinda, Alisia, Sarah, Emily, Marta, Grace, Devra, Joaquin, Nick, Pawel, James, Tai, Lucas, Art, Ron, Ali, Ricky and Chris. Loves ya!
If you’ve ever sold anything on Craigslist you’ve faced “the beast.” It had been a while since I listed my childhood bedroom set on Craigslist (which included a faux French provincial canopy bed retrofitted with 2”x4”s fit for a pudgy princess) so I had kind of forgotten how quickly scammers slither out from under their rocks.
I am in the process of selling my parent’s furniture so that I can empty a 12’ x 12’ storage space containing my things from California. If I don’t get my stuff out of storage by next month, I will have paid 10 times the aggregate value of the items—in storage fees.
Within 60 seconds of listing a solid walnut dining set with china hutch, six chairs and a table measuring 9’ with the leaves (perfect for large family gatherings!), I got a text asking if “the item” was still for sale. Meet the beast.
The first tipoff you’re not dealing with a legit human buyer is the lightning speed with which the beast contacts you. The second clue is a nonspecific question about “the item.” Angelinanqr (that’s the name the beast went by) offered to pay over asking, sight unseen, oh, and it had to be a PayPal transaction.
Ding ding ding ding…alarms were chiming like a Swiss church on Christmas morning. Save yourself a bushel of trouble by Googling “Craigslist scams” before listing anything. As for the other scams out there, I’ve done a little hands-on research that might save you some peace of mind, cash, heartache and humiliation. Here are just a few red flags to avoid:
1. “I left my wallet in my other pants.”
There are no other pants. There is no wallet. Best case scenario: you are dining with a con artist who wishes to charm you out of the fish special of the day. Worst case: he ain’t so charming and he’s looking to get into more than the sea bass.
The evening begins on a high note of generosity, when your date gallantly instructs you to order anything you wish as he is picking up the check. If you are me, in which case you have been raised by Helen and Tom Ferderbar, as long as someone else is paying you will never order the most expensive thing on the menu. Your walletless date will, however, and you will be stuck with a tab that includes a quarter of a roasted chicken and a 5lb lobster tail.
Recommendation: upon learning the man’s wallet is MIA excuse yourself for the ladies room, pay your portion of the check and duck out through the kitchen.
2. “Praise Jesus!”
If you are even considering doing business with a person who begins a meeting by “raising the roof for our lord,” and I can’t stress this enough, RUN don’t walk in the opposite direction.
It has been my experience that decent people of any religious persuasion simply behave in a manner consistent with their religious beliefs, usually driven at least in part by the dictum “don’t ef people over.” The Beverly Hills banker’s wife who informs you she is a “very good Christian” and therefore is completely trustworthy will cheat the bejesus out of you faster than you can say, “Goddammit, she stiffed me on the bill!”
3. “Cancel at any time.”
If you sign up for a trial offer on youthimafying face cream, Fabletics or download the Kylie Jenner app, you are doomed and will not be able to terminate your ongoing eternal til-the-end-of-time paid subscription until you cancel your credit cards, assume another identity and move to Bolivia.
4. “Free 5-night stay!”
Come on now, nothing is free. Not love, not shelter, not food and certainly not a 5-night stay at the Waikiki Hilton. My husband at the time convinced me to attend a timeshare seminar in exchange for 5 nights in Hawaii. (Full disclosure, he had a yummy English accent which he used to talk me into marrying him despite all the obvious reasons I should do no such thing, so the timeshare seminar wasn’t really that much of a stretch.)
Having prequalified my income (with that accent who needs an income?), assuring the seminar hosts we could afford a timeshare if we so desired to purchase one, we drove to Anaheim where we sat in an airless dining room at a 1-star hotel not associated with Disneyland in order to learn about a timeshare opportunity, which in and of itself was the equivalent of a colonoscopy in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
In the parking lot outside the Anaheim Carriage Inn we pinkie-swore no matter how convincing they were, we would not fall prey to the call-to-action. We would claim our vouchers and be enjoying mai tais on a lanai before you could say “we are nobody’s timeshare bitches.”
In order to get the vouchers there was an American Ninja-type gauntlet to navigate—six stations manned by increasingly hostile salespeople fresh off a production of Glengarry Glen Ross. To give you just a little taste of the shakedown, the representative at the first table was a friendly man in his early 20s, wearing dad jeans and a sweater vest. By Table 3 the salesperson had aged 30 years and his brown polyester suit smelled faintly of kerosene. The guy at Table 5 wore shirtsleeves, sweat-stained under the arms, and from the prison tats on both forearms looked like he meant business when he growled, “You don’t wanna walk away from this.”
We wanted to run, but the whole point of the exercise was to obtain the golden ticket—the “free 5 night stay” voucher. We had come too far to turn back. En route to the last table—the voucher table—where people who bought in enjoyed sparkling cider from paper cups, we were harangued by accusations of “you’re liars, poor ass cheats, nobodies.” Yes, we were called all those things loudly enough for everyone in Anaheim to hear.
At the voucher table we learned that our “free” 5 night stay in Waikiki would cost us $2,350 in taxes, fees and bullshit.
5. Trust no one with an English accent.
(Following is my sweaty Tax Day post from last year. This year I did not perspire because I automatically sent everything to a CPA. In spite the great confidence I have in “Keith,” I will not fully rest until three years from now, when the IRS statute of limitations says they can’t come after me for erroneously writing off my book club purchases.
Lest you think I am a silly worrywart, in 1995 my 1994 returns were audited, which makes deciphering income tax forms look like an hour at TJ Maxx. The IRS disputed $1,400 worth of deductions. They spent three months and untold “man hours” sifting through every receipt in order to potentially recoup the taxes on $1,400, plus a small penalty–roughly $400 total. Because my Uncle Ivan, the consummate bookkeeper, drilled it into my head to err on the side of over-paying and having back-up for each and every deduction, I ended up owing the IRS zero. Nothing. Nada. The CPA bill was five digits.
Yes, April 15th is not my favorite time of the year.)
April 15, 2016
This year April 15th shall go down in history, for me, as the end of the world as I know it.
In the past, I used an accountant to do my taxes. Self-employed as a TV commercials director, writer, producer, photographer, and media consultant, there were just too many variables for me to take on the IRS all by my lonesome. But this year, all I had income-wise were proceeds from a brand new photography business and books sales from my novel. (Uh, you guys have to schedule more photo shoots and buy more books. Seriously. I honestly didn’t think I needed help tabulating my “income” this year.)
Au contrare, Pierre, as they say in I-see-London-I-see-France. This, from the IRS website, “If you made or received a payment as a small business or self-employed (individual), you are most likely required to file an information form with the IRS.” In essence, if someone paid me $5 for taking a photo of his dog with my iPhone, I must file a separate tax return in addition to my personal income tax return.
Knowing full well that the thought of filing taxes turns mortals into Jello, the charmers at the IRS have devised this thing that is meant to sound helpful. I say “sound helpful” because there could be no way for an actual human to believe this thing is actually helpful. The thing is a form to which a government clerk has added the letters EZ, i.e. forms 1040EZ and Schedule C-EZ.
One would think the letters EZ are meant to indicate, oh, I don’t know, a procedure that by comparison to brain transplants and speaking Lithuanian with a high degree of fluency might be construed as EASY. EZ. See what they did there?
I foolishly set aside two days this week to do my taxes. My Uncle Ivan was the bookkeeper for our family’s advertising photography studio, and he drummed it into my head to save every receipt, annotate all paperwork with excessive detail, keep records of any transaction in triplicate (including dry cleaning bills even though one would never dream of deducting such an expense unless the clothing had been soiled during a work-sanctioned food fight with mandatory attendance – we did, after all, work in advertising), and assume accountants from the government would terrorize you if the corporate checkbook wasn’t balanced to the penny.
One wouldn’t normally place the word “terrorize” in the same sentence with the word “accountant,” a term more generally associated with the phrases “date from hell” and “I’m sorry, I fell asleep. What did you say?” But these are the Feds we’re talking about.
Fully aware that the term “accountant” may not cast quite enough fear into the hearts of American citizens and others who pay U.S. taxes, the federal government has bestowed upon their “accountants” a more fitting and ghastly title—agent.
I don’t care how old you are or where you grew up, when you put the word “agent” in the same breath as the word “government” you’ve pictured a sinister man in a raincoat whose goal in life it is to do you harm. I believe, verbatim, this is in fact part of the actual job description of the IRS agent.
It was demoralizing to discover that in spite of my record-keeping—a feat of human organization and skill unmatched by anyone whose uncle was not Ivan Ferderbar, I would be unable to fathom the instructions for filing my taxes.
I’ve read Finnegan’s Wake—an experimental novel with no clear plot, of approximately a million pages, single-spaced in a tiny font—that is written all stream of consciousness, consisting of idiosyncratic language, i.e. quirky strings of words that you wouldn’t exactly call “sentences,” based on free association, and that as best I can tell, is an attempt at capturing the feeling of dreams—and not the ones you remember or can fly in. 77 years after it was published, Joyce scholars still can’t agree on what it all means, but they unanimously concur it is easier to read and understand than form 1040EZ.
I tried calling the IRS Helpline. Only government agents, i.e. sadistic psychopaths, would have the audacity to use the word “help” to describe a thing (you can’t really call it a function as it lacks purpose) that is actually 100% a hindrance. They should call it the IRS Ironyline. Or Glitchline. Make up your own name for it. It’s a better use of your time than calling the number at 10AM (CDT) on Monday, April 11th, only to get a recorded announcement telling you the office is currently closed, and to call back during normal business hours, defined as Monday through Friday, 7AM to 7PM. (The message did not state whether this was central daylight time or Martian winter hours, but 10A (CDT), no matter how you slice it, falls within any definition of “between 7Am and 7PM” anywhere in the contiguous United States, except for maybe a place in Texas where they believe the earth was created 6,000 years ago and Christian people rode domesticated triceratops to work.
My guess? Just like in a cartoon with a squirrel and a moose, a diabolical yet small man wearing a trench coat came into work at the IRS at precisely 7AM on Monday morning the 11th of April, 2016. He reached for the “off” button on the office answering machine, but his finger hovered, not quite disengaging the device. A sinister smile crept across his oily face, making his pencil mustache go up at the outer edges, like evil punctuation. He left the answering machine on.
“BWAAAAAAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHA,” he exclaimed, before sitting down at his desk and determining whom he would like to audit next. Then he grabbed a folder with the letter F on its cover, and opened it to the name Ferderbar.
The word wealth smacks me in the face like a dead trout every time I pick up a paper or watch the news. CEOs receive multi-multi-multi-million dollar golden parachute pay outs when they are fired or forced to resign in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations, insider trading allegations, mismanagement allegations and just plain crooked-as-hellessness.
It’s suddenly admirable, if not cost effective, for women whose assets exist outside the fiduciary to marry men with billions in exchange for their heavenly bodies. I have always thought prostitution should be legal, and finally, it is. Certainly the exchange of bodily fluids for cash is nothing new, but I’ve never seen it quite so celebrated in the past.
I know many of you are probably thinking I’m just jealous—that if given the chance I’d gladly exchange my lady parts or soul for a Centurian card, but I can honestly say I’m not wired that way, and it is difficult for me to put myself in their Loubies. My own mom, rest her soul, used to tell me it was as easy to fall in love with a rich man as poor one. If this were true why would any of us choose the sexy guy who can’t afford a dentist or lunch at Perkins rather than the ugly dude with dandruff on his glasses and a big fat sparkling portfolio?
All of this got me thinking about how I might approach my own personal wealth, as it’s hella unlikely I will snag Xavier Neil anytime soon. Neil, a Frenchman at the perfect marrying age of 45, is worth $6.6 billion. So what if he once owned a stake in a sex shop and peep show business, which lead to a stint in jail on prostitution charges. Cleared of the pimping allegations, Monsieur Neil is excellent marriage material if you and your mom are not too picky about a guy’s past and are willing to learn French,
For everyone who is unlikely or uninterested in brokering a financially windfally marriage, I offer 5 steps to personal wealth that each and every one of us can manage.
1. You’re never too broke to invest.
In the classic film Auntie Mame, when the formerly wealthy leading lady finds herself wiped out by the stock market crash of 1929 and doesn’t have cab fare home after job hunting, she drops her very last dollar into a Salvation Army bucket.
While Mame was loaded and livin’ large, she treated everyone—starving artists, people in service industries, orphans and refugees generously, with dignity and respect. Once she became poor it was even more important to invest what little she had left. The spring in her step after giving her last dollar to charity revealed a portfolio brimming with irrevocable assets.
Sure, Auntie Mame (the 1958 version please. The 1972 Lucille Ball remake is an abomination.) may be just an old movie, but the message rings clear as a bell today. We can hoard what we’ve got, try to insulate ourselves from people with less than, whom we deem less than—people who scare us because we think they want what we have. Or…we can resist the “us against them” mentality and take just one moment to realize we are separated from everyone else by a little tiny tenuous thread.
For the majority of the 1%, it wouldn’t take all that much to lose it all. The masters of the universe could easily find themselves perched on a ledge 145 floors above the financial distract where a Bernie Madoff, the “wrong war” or a good stiff wind would knock them right back down to earth.
If you want to preserve your wealth in any market, nothing says you’ve got a grip on your valuables like the words, “Take half my sandwich. I’ve got plenty.”
2. Demonstrate power.
Wanna feel like you’re king (or queen) of the world? Next time you see someone trying to wrangle a wheelchair into a minivan or the trunk of their car, help out. It isn’t so much that you are physically superior or more fortunate than the other person. It’s that you have power, and you can demonstrate it by easing someone else’s struggle.
Imagine the power in the palm of your hand when you carry a sack of groceries for an elderly person, rescue a kitten from a busy street or pick up garbage from the sidewalk when no one is watching. That’s Superman stuff, and it’s a whole lot of return for very little investment.
3. Get to know “the right people.”
While you literally can’t put a price tag on working for free, the pay is exceptional. Whether volunteering for a political candidate, a non-profit that supports children and families through the adoption process, or taking pictures of dogs who need homes, when you work with a group of people who believe so strongly in something that they are willing to bestow and endow their greatest treasure—time–then you know you’re rubbing elbows in rarified air. You will soon realize you are “one of them,” and that makes you rich in a great many ways.
4. Take stock of your valuables.
I don’t know if everyone occasionally laments the things they haven’t accomplished—that they may never accomplish—or feels regret over things they wish they’d done differently, or not at all. It’s easy to slip into despair over these things, and I find myself periodically reliving a past unpleasantness and fretting over some thing that may or may not occur in the future. The platitudes about living in the present roll off my back like water from a duck, and I will admit, I feel sorry for myself.
This is a poor, worthless state of being, which neither motivates me nor makes me feel better. When I’m spinning down that rabbit hole I usually have a nanosecond of clarity where I think, “At least I’ve got my teeth” or “I don’t live in Syria.” It’s not full blown gratitude—yet—but when I compare whatever it is that’s troubling me to the real shit happening to other people, it jolts me out of my pity party.
Three-time Pulitzer-winning playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder wrote, “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”
I’ve got friends battling cancer, others whose children are seriously ill. There are people I love whose lives have been turned upside down by addiction, gun violence and injustice. Any one of these things could hit me at any time, but today—on this day—my heart is conscious of my treasures, and that makes me very well off.
5. Save your money because you can’t buy happiness…or class.
My mom was always impeccably well dressed. I overheard one of her friends tell a group at the memorial, “Helen never wore the same outfit twice,” which wasn’t completely true, but my mom did know how to switch up an outfit to make it look fresh. I doubt whether anyone knew that she never paid full retail for anything ever in her entire life, yet she never went out looking less than a million bucks. (I, on the other hand, am unrecognizable as her offspring, wearing ancient sweatpants and an old Lou Reed tee, the collar long since chewed off by a dog who passed away in 1988.)
Some women carry themselves with an assurance of purpose that gives them stature and an aura of success. They don’t flaunt their assets—financial or otherwise—but the goods are surely implied. I have an acquaintance who wears super expensive clothes and too much diamond jewelry. She’s unkind, judgmental and ostentatious, and therefore looks like she’s wearing Canal Street Chanel and cubic zirconium.
It’s not carat size, clothes or haircuts that constitute “class.” Real quality in a human is borne of kindness, compassion, generosity and empathy. You can have a gazillion dollars on your back and still elicit pity from people whose bank balances pale in comparison because you fall short where it really counts.
If our desire is to be so rich that we are happy, so well off that our lives have great meaning, then it doesn’t matter how much jewelry we own or who we are wearing. It’s the size of our hearts that determine our wealth.
I overhear it at Starbucks, walking into a movie theater, shopping and at the oil change place. A young person, usually a young woman, is about to go on a job or college interview, is preparing to ask for a promotion or has been invited to speak publicly. In all these scenarios she is nervous. Someone—could be a mom, bestie or mechanic—offers the sage advice, “Just be yourself.”
The trouble with “just be yourself” is that we are many people and it’s not always so simple to narrow it down to the right person for the job. If you are the butt of the joke in your family because you behave around them like a nincompoop, it would be best not to present thusly at a job interview with a bank. Likewise, if someone asks you a question at a dinner party and you then barricade yourself in the bathroom with a book, well, you probably don’t want to be her when she is about to give a Ted Talk.
I used to subscribe to the JBY philosophy on first dates, because frankly there is nothing worse, and one needs some sort of philosophy to cling to in order to survive. My reasoning was that if anything was going to last relationship-wise, then shouldn’t I operate authentically from the get go? No. Nuh uh. I have a wacky sense of humor, which is distinctly me. Experience has taught me that it is better to reveal it, little by little over time rather than springing it on an unsuspecting man all at once.
Example: “first date” lunch. I had a hair appointment at 3 to get my roots touched up, so I wore a jaunty hat. He was bald. I do not have a problem with bald. Apparently, he did. Lunch went well. At first. He had all his teeth and knew how to operate a knife and fork. He was a little uptight, so I reined myself in a just a bit so as to not overwhelm. Suddenly it was 2:30 and I needed to skedaddle.
I told him about my salon appointment. He touched a lock of my long auburn hair and asked whether I’d ever worn it short. I recounted the time just before my lawyer was to get married on Martha’s Vineyard that I went to a new salon for a body wave. Informed there would be no stylists available over the wedding weekend on the island, I would have to do my own hair, and I thought it would be nice to have a little wave for a sexy up do.
At the schmancy salon the stylist rolled my hair up, applied stinky goop and stuck me under a dryer hood. A few minutes later I felt something trickle down my face. I wiped a finger across my cheek and discovered blood. I screamed. Everyone screamed. Two women frantically pulled the rollers out, and with them clumps of my hair, which was now clown orange. I screamed again, in a prolonged, agonizing wolfy way. They had used the wrong goop, apparently mistaking a toxic chemical solvent meant to strip paint off aircraft carriers for setting solution. In fairness, they offered to cut the damaged hair for free, but I ran away, thinking of the possibilities should they get near me with sharp pointy scissors.
At another salon I was told my “length could not be saved” and I ended up with a #2 fade. Ooh ra! At the wedding I looked like a Marine in high heels, wearing an Armani strapless empire waist gown with a 2’ train. Mariska Hargitay kept calling me sir.
Eyes wide, my lunch date said, “That must have been incredibly traumatic!”
“Na,” I replied. It’s just hair. It grows back.” I looked at his head, smiled, and in that way I have when I am just being my (silly) self, I added, “In most cases.”
“Check!” he snapped. I never saw him again.
Since high school I have had the honor and onus of being the family eulogist. We have always been very close, so delivering a grandparent’s eulogy, or a beloved aunt’s, or my mom’s would have been impossible were I to just be myself.
It begins with the writing. No way I could get through even that unless I pretended to be someone else, and that someone is almost always John Fitzgerald Kennedy, one of the greatest orators in history. I would think of him at his inaugural…”ask not what your country can do for you…” and I would internally recreate his cadence and delivery as I wrote, detaching me from the content just enough so I didn’t bawl my eyes out and fry the keyboard.
Pretending to be someone else—the opposite of being myself—was and is an efficient way to get through something too tough, too painful for actual me. I would imagine JFK as I delivered the eulogies. It would be me speaking, but in my head I was hearing JFK extoll the many virtues of my lovely mother, describe the sweet sense of humor my Aunt Grace possessed, and describe my grandpa’s big tough laborer’s mitts—mitts in which he would so softly and gently cradle a baby bunny he had rescued.
Being someone else in our head not only helps us get through a difficult time emotionally, it can also be a great physical motivator. It’s no secret I am fond of Bruce Springsteen. At 67 he rocks the body of a 30 year old who works out four hours a day, eats right and doesn’t drink or smoke. When I am feeling wimpy at 6 in the morning, and think I can just ride the bike while reading the paper and then hit the steam room and call it a day, I ask myself one question. Would the Boss pedal a bike like Dorothy with Toto in the basket or would he hit the treadmill at a 15% grade then throw iron like a mofo? I think we know what he’d do. Next thing you know I’m strutting across the gym, envisioning 60,000 people screaming Paaaaaaaaaaaaaaam as I make the thigh abductor my bitch.
At any given time I am a rock star, a president, a somewhat demure woman who…oh, hell. Who am I kidding with that last one? Point is, we are multidimensional beings with a host of qualities, traits and personalities from which to draw at various intervals in our lives. I see nothing wrong with channeling Princess Kate when meeting the boyfriend’s parents the first time, and conversely imagining oneself to be Angela Merkel when a male coworker tells you to fetch him coffee.
It is not disingenuous or inauthentic to call upon the things inside of us that give us strength. Shying away, giving up, saying no to an opportunity would be the real betrayal. Just be yourself? Okay, just make sure you’ve got lots of friends in there with you.
In high school I fancied myself a deep, soulful sort of loner with one or two close friends other than Bob Dylan, Rimbaud, Ezra Pound, Lou Reed and all of Monty Python. I didn’t participate in school sanctioned extracurricular activities. I went to zero proms (holding out for Dylan to say yes when I wrote to ask him each year), no athletic meets and not a single field trip other than junior year when our athletic director mistakenly thought I was an 18 year old senior with a responsible bone in my body and I went along to Germany, Austria and France as a chaperone for the French class. I saw the girls when we boarded the plane in Chicago, and then again at DeGaulle when we boarded for the return flight. My chaperonin’ philosophy was pretty much, “y’all be careful,” and off I went to explore the boys of Europe on my own.
The only après school events I really enjoyed were the father-daughter dinner dances. I went to an all girl Catholic high school, so the father-daughter soirees consisted of about 500 girls and 500 dads. I’d wait until cocktail hour was in full swing, then I’d go to the center of the room and shout, “Dad!” Every man in the place whipped around, hundreds of brandy old fashioneds sloshing out of their glasses. Good times.
My bestie, Marjy, and I would cut class and practice our guitars in the school’s stairwells where the acoustics were excellent. We also switched places in art and typing class. (A typewriter is an ancient mechanical or electromechanical machine for writing characters similar to those produced by printer’s movable type.) Marjy was fleet of finger and earned me an A in typing. I could throw a decent pot. It was win-win.
It was also nothing short of a miracle that we weren’t found out, as Marjy’s mom was the biology teacher (which did not benefit me in any way). When a Bunsen burner mishap set off a chain reaction, I was not given any special dispensation because of my personal proximity to the teacher’s daughter. I may have been reprimanded by the authorities, but I never got in trouble with my parents because we lived in the country, with a different area code than the school’s, which in the days of typewriters meant it was something called “long distance” to phone out of your area. The school wasn’t about to spend money just to tell my mom I’d cut a class, switched identities or burned up the biology lab. Again, good times.
I remember fondly the girls with whom I went to high school—a mostly cheery bunch of people who participated in and very much seemed to enjoy all the things that I did not. While I eschewed make up and pretty clothes, favoring instead the messy hair and grungy leather of Patti Smith, I often marveled at how grown up the other girls seemed. I was a skinny, unkempt poetry-obsessed rube in the midst of athletes, ballerinas, elegant swans and girls with a plan for the future—or so it seemed to me.
Looking back, I doubt they all had the future pegged, and even those who did have probably been at turns surprised, thrilled, disappointed and perhaps shocked by the way in which life has ultimately shaken out. The universe has a capricious way of lobbing curve balls in every direction, regardless of what we’ve planned.
So when there was a charity dinner to celebrate the school’s 125th anniversary last weekend, and a former classmate invited me to join others from our graduating class at a table, I thought, why not? It would be lovely to spend an evening with cheery, elegant swans. I had no expectation of what conversation would be like, or even whether I’d recognize anyone. I slipped into my leather pants and high heels, made my hair look as presentable as it gets, and I hoped someone would remember me as being a good egg, not just a surly poetry-writing arsonist.
I arrived earlier than any of my classmates, and was stunned when a small gaggle of elderly nuns surrounded me. I’d have known them anywhere, but why did they remember me? This couldn’t be good.
“Pam Ferderbar!” they chirped. “Are you still writing? Tell us everything!” Oh my. Their recollections of me were positive, ebullient, complimentary and so so sweet. They recalled the writing awards I’d won that I had long since forgotten—those otherwise meaningless accolades that made me want to work harder at placing the right words in the right order. To them I wasn’t a misfit. I was an author in the making. We exchanged warm embraces, old stories and a genuine fondness for “the good old days.”
At our table, I immediately recognized each girl/woman. I’d have known them anywhere. I envisioned each in the school uniform, walking toward her locker, sitting across from me in Mrs. Zagar’s class, or Sister Edith’s, or Mr. Teppler’s. I could recall how they fared scholastically, socially and athletically. I remembered whether they had sisters in school, who sat with whom at lunch, and who always smiled at me in the hallways.
Our conversation was warm and personal, washing away the years since we were girls together. Now women—some with children, some without—some married, divorced, widowed—all civic-minded, hard working, generous and kind, there was nowhere I would rather have been than at that table.
A friend recently told me that as we grow older we don’t change. We become more entrenched in whom we’ve always been. The grade school bully becomes the jerk down the block who yells at kids for stepping on his lawn. The young co-worker who throws people under the bus when she makes a mistake becomes the old crank whose kids never visit her in the nursing home where the other residents hide her walker.
The girls who were kind and generous, funny and bright, witty and optimistic in high school have become polished and gently worn versions of their younger selves. It was a privilege and an honor to sit with them. (Thank you Mary, Laurie, Meg and Chris.)
My friend Moira told me that the other day, while she was stuck in traffic on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, she glanced over to the side of the road as a bush suddenly burst into flames. “God?” she wondered aloud. “Is this a sign?”
When I mentioned this to my friend Tom Jordan, he asked whether Moira had considered all the other people in their cars, and that perhaps, if the burning bush was a sign from above, it was intended for someone else. “Maybe it was directed at the guy levitating out of his Prius,” Tom speculated.
I did a little research and it turns out shrubbery spontaneously combusts every other day. Especially in arid climates, like say, the general Egypt area and L.A., roadside conflagrations are pretty common. Are these simple acts of nature that we humanize to fit our needs and our agenda, or is someone really trying to tell us something?
My novel Feng Shui and Charlotte Nightingale is based almost entirely on this premise. Is it feng shui that changes Charlotte life, or does the belief in feng shui cause people to behave differently, which sets off Charlotte’s transformation?
I have days when I feel pretty and days when I am pretty sure it looks like I’ve spent the night in a swamp, wrestling alligators. I don’t know about you, but on the alligator days I’m not feeling it, and that seems to be reflected back to me in the form of people covering their eyes and hurrying in the opposite direction, and in a slightly gentler guise when I’m told I look tired and should have a nap.
But the occasions when my hair has cooperated, I’ve been to the gym twice in three months and I am wearing something from a hanger, and not sweats, good things happen to me. People smile and do not swing the stroller around to face the other way. Menfolk openly admire my clavicle, which I am told is my most alluring feature. I get my picture taken at the DMV and it does not resemble a mug shot.
Do I believe my adult “hung up” clothes and beachy brunette waves are magic? Or maybe I’m feeling a little better for having made an effort, and am therefore exuding the sweet pheromones of self-confidence—a kind of magic. When I groan, “Oh god, are you serious?” upon peering into the mirror first thing in the morning as I brush my teeth, and the entire medicine cabinet falls off the wall and shatters over the sink, is this god’s answer to me? And if so, what is she saying?
After my mom passed away in October, my dad and I wanted to se sure to watch for a sign from her on January 12th, which would have been my mom’s 90th birthday. My best girlfriends from L.A. (I wanted to type ‘my L.A. squad,’ but my age just wouldn’t let me) were in town and staying at the house. My cousins and their kids came for dinner. There was a full moon.
It seemed like the big beautiful family dinner that was peppered with laughter, heartfelt toasts and a strong sense of purpose was a sign from my mom. Everyone felt her presence—as if just past our sight, at the far, far end of the table she sat with a glass of wine, smiling that smile, laughing along, surrounded by loving family.
A few days later, when the friends had returned to Cali and things were kind of ishly back to normal, my pops contracted the ugliest upper respiratory bug ever and it knocked him on his keester. Just moments before he hacked up his left lung, we had been talking about the time my mom nearly killed my dad with her chili.
It may have been in the freezer for 10 or 12 years—there was no way to know, but my mom assumed the best, heated it up and fed it to my dad. Full disclosure; my mom also had the chili and it did not nearly kill her at all. (Pops and I figure she unwittingly ate around the botulism, or whatever scourge comes from ancient chili, and was thus spared the near-death experience he enjoyed.)
Dad had to go to the hospital in an ambulance. When the EMTs arrived they asked when the projectile vomiting had begun. My dad said, “Right after I ate the chili,” at the exact same moment as my mom said, “It was not the chili.” The same conversation was repeated at the hospital as they prepared to pump my dad’s stomach, only this time around my mom was getting steamed. She ate the chili. She wasn’t going Exorcist all over the walls. It was not the damn chili!
This story was often a favorite when the topic of cooking mishaps would arise at parties, family gatherings and once at a wedding when the groom starting puking on the altar. My dad asked my mom, quietly, under his breath of course, whether she had heated up some chili for him. Turns out the bachelor party was the night before the wedding, so not the chili, but the question antagonized my mom to no end.
Just hours before my dad hacked up that left lung at the onset of the upper respiratory thing, we were reminiscing about the time my mom nearly killed my dad with her chili, and we recalled how much she hated that story. I believe my pops starting choking right about that time, and we both looked at the portrait of my mom hanging on the living room wall, and said, “No, she wouldn’t. Would she?”
If we wanted to, every single event every single minute of every single day could be construed as a sign from someone about something. Personally, I don’t look for signs anymore, but I find ways to feel connected to people that went before, and concepts that are much greater than my puny little mind can comprehend.
Just this morning I held my mom’s watch, thinking about how she would wrap the band around her slender wrist then do up the clasp in the back. My hands are nothing like hers. I feel like her presence is slowly but surely slipping away.
I looked around, hoping to find something I could hold that would conjure her, make me feel like she wasn’t so completely gone. Then it occurred to me that the thing her hand was most evident in, was me. Is that magic, or what?