We have been recently admonished by our president that memorials to figures of the Confederacy are merely part of our “cultural history,” and why on earth would anyone wish to erase that? Oh, I don’t know. You won’t find a single statue of Hitler or Mengele anywhere in Germany and there’s a place whose cultural history goes back centuries farther than the American experience. The holocaust still looms large in the universal hippocampus, and yet the Germans don’t salute the losing side of history and decency with likenesses of the biggest assholes the world has ever known. I think we can honor history, pay heed to it and possibly even learn a few things without casting the villains in bronze. After all, it’s Jesus we see wherever Christianity is sold—not the Romans who crucified him.
Perhaps, as with most things, what we need to do is bring the discussion home—down to a personal level that makes it easier to digest. I will start with myself.
I have lost battles and I have lost wars and like the proud sons and daughters of the Confederacy, I am still standing. Of course I was humbled, educated, embarrassed, horrified, cowed and spanked by my losses so the last thing I would want to do is erect any sort of monument to my greatest blunder/s.
My first divorce lawyer lead me into battle like we were gonna land a few solid body blows up front, which would guaranty in the long run I’d own D Day. Although my lawyer was, on paper, a far better qualified human to practice jurisprudence (and spell it) than my husband’s drinking buddy, it is never wise to underestimate functionally illiterate degenerate alcoholics.
We strode into battle suited up with motions, depositions, statements and affidavits. They staggered in with the dumb luck of zombie barflies and waltzed out with the good china that was a wedding gift from my friends, which was soon thereafter sold to purchase lap dances at a strip club on Milwaukee’s south side.
Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, whose own relatives want his bronzes taken down across the South, once famously said, “I am more afraid of alcohol than of all the bullets of the enemy.” He may have been an asshole, but it turns out he was a smarter asshole than my attorney. Neither deserves a place outside (or inside) a courthouse.
So rather than “erasing history,” which is what our president says is the result of removing the statues, let’s take the statues down and commemorate the cultural history they represent by, oh, I don’t know, putting shit in a history book perhaps. What, it’s already there? Get out!
I guess you’d need to read books, or have read them, in order to appreciate that they contain slightly more depth than television news and whatever malarkey you find on the internet. When someone has taken the time to write a book, a history book in particular, a tremendous amount of research has been done so that the book contains something known as facts.
Many people question facts because they do not want to believe, for example, that the world is round or that Adam and Eve did not saddle up and ride a T Rex to their wedding.
Doubting that something is real does not change the realness of that thing no matter how badly you want it to be something else, like the truth. We laughed when Dubya said “truthiness.” Today, he reads like a freakin’ genius.
In the case of history, where the facts are verifiable because of documents, relics, ruins, carbon dating and such, books are a super great place to acquire the knowledge you need in order to sound intelligent when you speak. Statues clearly do not give you that edge. Sure, there’s something big, cold and cunning in our version of monoliths—we’ve taken short, often chubby, usually pompous looking men and made them bigger than life, but a statue misleads just by virtue of its being a statue.
Who’d be stupid enough, the reasoning goes, to erect a monument to a loser?
Ask the living descendants of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis who are begging authorities to remove the statues of their respective relatives in every place they exist under the sun. No decent people want to be associated with slavery. It is a stain on their very own family history. What does that say about the people who think the statues stand for American culture?
I write this on my birthday—a day that usually passes with special wishes and bedazzled cards from close friends and family, but that goes otherwise quietly into the good night. I am not complaining. Like most recognized days (yes, I consider my birthday a national holiday if only in my own mind) I think the celebration and silliness is mostly for children, but something strange happened this year that has changed the way I look at celebration, family, friends and love.
When I see a Facebook post telling me it is someone’s birthday, and that someone is someone I don’t really know—part of the extended “Facebook family’ comprised in part of complete strangers—I feel compelled to send a personalized birthday wish, but I always wonder if the recipient will think I’m a stalker. Am I being presumptuous, too friendly when I send my wishes for joy, happiness, hugs, kisses, loving, dancing, sexiness and glee? Then I throw caution to the wind and send it anyway. If anyone thinks I’m weird they can chalk it up to me being a writer, which lets me off the hook on lots of behaviors other people consider inappropriate.
Today I am on the receiving end of a truckload of good will, generosity, silliness, joy, intimacy and friendship and it makes me feel…like I’m suspended in an enveloping sea of warm Velveeta—floating in gooey, convivial bliss. I am deeply charmed.
It’s an amazing feeling to know that people with much better things to do spent the time to write a birthday greeting. Ok, it takes a few seconds, but that isn’t the point. Each person who wrote me had to overcome the same trepidation that I do when I send a note to a “stranger.” Then they sent it anyway. To be a warm, generous, giving human was more important than whatever opinion or reaction it might elicit from me. They went balls out in the brotherly/sisterly love department. If only the whole world could catch that cold.
The past couple of years people have taken the unusual step of insulting one another in an openly hostile and reprehensible manner—total strangers calling others every version of “’tard,” an offensive term no matter how you decorate it, telling one another they’re stupid, not worthy to live, deserve to be shot and the ever popular, “then move to Canada.” (I will never understand this as invective since with said move one would be that much closer to a calendar-worthy world leader.)
Amid all that nastiness and vitriol, the birthday wishes for happiness, fun and love stand out like Bjork. The gleeful emojis, exclamation points, hearts, flowers, dancing monkeys and balloons erase the nastiness spattered across my daily feed, and remind me there is infinitely more love in the world than not.
So here’s my thought: if we can take the time to put aside our differences for the moment it takes to write a birthday wish on FB, then doesn’t that show we have the capacity to tone down the ugly in favor of the beautiful? All it takes is NOT writing something horrid no matter how sincerely we believe we are right and the other person is a drooling Neanderthal.
Each time my phone dings with the news that there’s another post, my heart sings like a whistling cockatiel—all those people spreading a little message of love today. Happy birthday to me! And thank you.
Every day I receive several emails trying to sell me books, webinars, seminars and workshops promising to teach me how I can change my life, my appearance, the way I eat, sleep and love, which begs the question of why I am being targeted by these ads. I feel like hitting reply and asking, ‘What have you heard?’
Admittedly, some of these “programs” pique my interest because frankly who wouldn’t want the giblets and jowls of a 20 year old without invasive surgery? But like the Nigerian nationals who have asked for my help in getting their $millions into the U.S., I much fear all these efforts to make me younger, smarter, thinner, taller and with super sexed up cavewoman blood coursing through my veins are a sham.
The most recent solicitation promised to show me the ways in which I could ferret out, stalk and bag any man I wanted. (It was phrased differently.) The protocol was simple enough. I’d have to change every single thing about myself. Then it occurred to me that even if I did all that I still wasn’t going to “share an intimate relationship” with Justin Trudeau, George Clooney or Kevin Hart (let’s face it, funny is every bit as sexy as sexy) unless by intimate what they meant to say was imaginary, in which case, sure, it could happen.
My curiosity got the best of me and I bought a book on how to repel a man just enough to make him want me. According to the author, men only want what they can’t have, so if you become just the right amount of repellant you should theoretically be able to snare a live one. The trick is walking the fine line between acceptably loathsome and outright disgusting. I’ve never been good with the fine points, so I don’t expect great results when I “lovingly insult him into submission.” I would expect to be shown the door and told to go fuck myself.
Why are we so desperate to change? I can’t think of a soul who doesn’t have days where she’d rather be…different, but does that mean she really wants to change the most basic things about the way she operates? I’ve made my share of blunders and if I could have even one do-over I’d really make it count (I’d halve the number of times I’ve been married, for example), but we don’t get leprechaun second chances and turbo time machines in real life. What we get are life lessons, which hopefully provide some sort of counter balance for future endeavors so that the next time a man says “I’m an asshole” we take him at his word and cheetah ourselves right out of his apartment.
I talk a lot about developing habits to make us nicer, kinder, more compassionate beings and yet when it comes to intimate relationships many of us are all thumbs and Groundhog Day. In any other scenario, like touching a molten cast iron skillet, we learn from being burned pretty much the first time it happens. Not so with love. Lust. Sex. Flourless chocolate cake. No matter the cost in calories or heartache, we go back for more seemingly unbothered by our own historical context. What is that?
My theory is that deep down we do love ourselves, and the thought of trying to shoe horn all that we are into a size smaller Loubie is repugnant. There is a special indignation I feel when someone tells me if I were only to refrain from cussing, get a job that doesn’t intimidate a man and stop dressing like I still live in L.A. then I would attract a decent guy. What I would attract is a guy who should be going after a woman who vaguely resembles me, but who doesn’t swear like a sailor, write like a motherfucker or enjoy surfing.
I think there’s nothing wrong with self-improvement, but the key here is the word self. If we lose that which is uniquely us—be it cockeyed optimism, hopeless romantic notions, a propensity for infatuation or simply being a lovable dufus, then we’re not self improving; we’re pretending to be someone else.
How many times have we met someone who seems like a good match—sincere, forthright, funny and kind only to discover he is rude to waiters, cheats at golf and loves his car more than his mom? We wonder how we got suckered in, why we didn’t see it from the start, how we could have been so blind. I’ll tell ya – dude pretended to be another version of himself in order to bag some lady goodness.
Absent from my inbox are tutorials on how to love myself more, better. Imagine if we all walked out the door tomorrow morning feeling invincible—not reminding ourselves to walk taller, eat less, smile more and for godssake don’t intimidate. The female self-improvement industrial complex is nefarious and for purely monetary reasons encourages us to view one another critically so that eventually we turn the prism on ourselves and then feed the kitty by buying into all the crap that has been manufactured to make us feel insecure in the first place.
I hate to burst any bubbles, but it is possible that there isn’t a lid for every pot, and maybe personal satisfaction, growth, achievement and happiness aren’t really predicated on cookware at all. Maybe you get all that stuff by simply loving and believing in your own unique quirky weird little self. Wouldn’t that be something? Vive liberte!
I don’t have children. There are two beautiful souls in California that I like to think I helped to form when I had the privilege of step-mothering them for 12 years, but as for biologic offspring I chose a different path.
I am an only child. Growing up I was very close to my mom’s sister Marta and her children; my four hilarious, generous, loving, quirky and exceptional cousins. They are each so different from the other, yet there is a sameness—a baseline of caring and goodness that is unmistakably “them.” So it comes as no surprise that their children sprouted into the world with joyful abandon and hearts as big as the universe.
Three of the ten are about to leave for college. That’s 30% of the kids in the family. So what does my tribe do when faced with the annihilation of its ranks? We honor them, we spend every minute with them that they will give us and, we the elders, gather to talk about the old times and we cry and hug and laugh and say little prayers for their safety and happiness. We plot care packages, visits, holidays and how we can make things even more special for the returning warrior cubs when they deign to visit us.
Going away to college is a rite of passage. It’s exciting, liberating, scary, stressful, anticipatory and such a major huge step in becoming independent. That’s all from the perspective of the ones leaving. For those of us who watch them go it is devastating…and good. It is life.
What can we tell them that we haven’t already said a thousand times? They know to be safe. They know to choose their friends wisely. They know a healthy diet is essential to regular digestive operations. And yet they are bound to take risks that would turn our blood to ice water if we knew what they were doing. They will befriend both sinners and saints, they will gamble and there will be high fructose corn syrup and there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it and they will live and thrive and laugh and learn in spite of it. Or maybe because of it.
What do we say to them now that we haven’t said over and over for the past 18 years? I do not have children, so perhaps my advice is less words of wisdom and more “oh, Pammy, please shut up” based on my experiences at their age. However interpreted, it is all from my heart.
You truly do not know how your kindness and compassion impact the people and the world around you until one day, perhaps a year from now, perhaps when you are very old—you will find someone has held you in their heart because you showed kindness at a time when he or she was on the brink of losing all hope. You weren’t aware of it—that time you offered a stranger a helping hand with a heavy burden, or you dropped everything to drive a friend of a friend of a friend to an appointment. Unwittingly, on that day at that moment you changed the script. You saved a life. You made a difference and you never even knew it.
So always go on the assumption that the way in which you treat people will be remembered forever, by them. It is an awesome burden, this. It will define you.
Laugh at disaster.
Tell the worst day of your life to fuck off. Shy of death, there is nothing that will happen to you or around you at this time of your life that you will likely even remember when you’re 30. You will endure a broken heart, a grade you didn’t deserve, to be lonely, scared, anxious and homesick. In the big scheme of things, which means by the time you’re 22, these will have been fleeting emotions—blips on the radar from which you will learn, and those will be the things you use to feather your emotional nests as you continue to grow and mature, which is a life long occupation btw. It doesn’t end after university or grad school, marriage or retirement. It doesn’t end until your heart stops beating.
We learn through repetition. Make observation a habit. Whether you go on to become physicians, actors, artists, philosophers, philanthropists, global financiers or soccer moms or dads, every day of your future will be informed by the events of today and tomorrow, so take mental stock often and in great detail.
I promise you, the feeling of warm sand between your toes on a summer’s day with the voices of children in the background, a breeze ruffling the edge of your beach towel and the sun so bright on the water you have to look away for a second—these are the moments that will help you take flight when you least expect it.
It’s equally important that you etch instances of great sorrow and elation into your consciousness—the look on your lover’s face the first time you say I love you, and when you say I do not love you anymore. The moments that take your breath away whether you are overjoyed or seizing with heartbreak are the same moments that will one day give you strength, inspiration, comfort and the principles upon which you will make wise choices.
Be aware of how people make you feel.
Anyone who makes you feel less than, insecure, not respected or valued or treasured or beautiful is not someone you should have in your life. There are all kinds of psyche terms we could bandy here, but suffice it to say that people who can thrive only by making others miserable are rat bastards who may be pitied, but in whom zero time should be invested.
Break bread with the sinners and see if you can’t corrupt a few saints, but walk away from anyone who doesn’t make you feel good about yourself. And with that admonishment you will surely recognize the absolute need to build others up.
“At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” ~ Maya Angelou
Go forth and change the world, and know that your tribe—those who went before and we who remain—are one footstep behind you should you stumble or fall. And when you run we will be cheering.
An article entitled Ten Toxic People to Avoid Like the Plague appeared in my inbox this morning. I clicked it fast as I could, fully expecting a list of people’s names, which could have been handy. Instead I got a list of toxic types: the gossip, the temperamental, the victim, the self-absorbed, the envious, the manipulator, the dementor, the twisted, the judgmental and the arrogant.
While I appreciate that someone compiled a list of poisonous personalities to run away from, I find it lacking (although I am enamored of the word “dementor” and plan to use it often and with abandon). Here’s what was overlooked:
1. The kid bragger.
Pretty much all parents think highly of their children so it’s a safe bet to assume when you start banging on about your elfin overachievers you’re setting other parent’s teeth on edge like a piece of aluminum foil hidden in a hamburger. I don’t care if Bimmer was accepted to Harvard before he was potty trained. My Alfie knows how to spell p-a-r-k and t-r-e-a-t, and he’s a dog.
When it comes to our children genius is totally in the eye of the beholder, which is where it should stay. After you get home from dinner you can gaze lovingly onto junior’s pudgy visage and tell him he is waaaay smarter than a dog. It will be a lie, but you’ll only be annoying the living crap out of Fido and not everyone at a dinner party.
2. The disingenuous.
The classic “disingenuous” is Charles Dickens’ sycophant Uriah Heep, notable for his cloying humility, obsequiousness and insincerity. “Oh, Master Copperfield, I am but an ‘umble’ man and you are so handsome and intelligent.” In today’s world Heep would open with, “Did you have a little work done? You look great!”
The character of Uriah Heep was based on a real life thief and forger who ingratiated himself to the Dickens’ family only to rob them blind once his bald flattery gained him access to the household. Apparently Thomas Powell told Mr. Dickens that he was a tremendous writer—that all other writers were losers—that Mr. Dickens had married the hottest Victorian supermodel in the world that no one had ever heard of before and that the Dickens children were classy and high quality people. Next thing he knew, Dickens was out $150K, all the silver candlesticks went missing and Tiny Tim had to do without the surgery that would have enabled him to walk sans crutches.
3. The megalomaniac.
Megalomania is a mental disorder in which the mind of the person is seriously broken as the possible result of a traumatic brain injury such as caused by falling off one’s gilded toilet onto one’s head. Megalomaniacs have an unrealistic sense of their own importance, popularity, wealth, power and significance, which is sweet soul music to the disingenuous.
Opposite the sycophant on the teeter-totter of dysfunction, the megalomaniac is easy to both manipulate and provoke. To bend one to your will you must only flatter and pledge undying loyalty, but their frontal lobe explodes when they are called on their shit. These are not philosophers or thinkers of meaningful thoughts, but they are oxygen to the flame of ass kissing and we better hope the two never converge in the White House. That would be #sad and #bad.
4. The willfully ignorant.
While my co-worker claims not to have known that the sandwich in the lunchroom fridge—in a bag with my name on it—wasn’t “up for grabs,” the law itself makes no allowances for ignorance (ignorantia juris non excusat), or in other words, I catch even a whiff of tomato, mozzarella, basil and roasted focaccia on your breath ever again, you are going down.
Sandwich skullduggery notwithstanding, I’m freaked out on a daily basis by the willfully ignorant’s ability to dismiss facts as something…disposable, like wedding rings or green cheese. Try as I might I cannot fathom a mental process by which, you know, evidence simply doesn’t effect decision-making, like the special kind of stupid it takes to touch a fajita plate even though you can literally hear it cauterizing the chicken. Just like the sizzling cast iron pan of death, willful ignorance will burn you in the end.
5. Internet trolls.
It is easier to discuss Kant with a cat than to argue with a troll although in both cases you will want to hack up a fur ball. I was recently blindsided by an exchange on Facebook that began civilly enough, but quickly devolved into what can only be described as visiting a Port-o-Potty next to a beer tent on the last day of a 10-day music festival during a heat wave when the curry guy at the international food tent has accidentally served tainted goat. In other words it was disgusting.
It’s one thing to voice opposition to a particular point of view or opinion, but to expend energy contriving vulgar non sequiturs in order to “get a rise” out of someone is like telling a rock it has a big ass and you don’t like its socks. The rock ain’t gonna change and the person talking to it remains an idiot talking to a rock.
Provocateurs used to be people who said and did thought provoking things usually associated with the arts and the loftier side of humanity. Much as the word “elite” used to be a positive adjective, we are suddenly swimming in a cesspool of co-opted verbiage. Elite is a dirty word while crass, vulgar and stupid stand in for “of the people.” Internet trolls know they don’t have to put any thought into their invective—as long as it’s base, ugly and vile it serves its purpose, which as best I can tell is to further strip humans of their distinction from rocks.
6. People who say irregardless.
Compared to the pulchritudinous people in items one through five, this one, #6, will get you killed.
1. Develop the empathy muscle.
This is first because it’s the easiest. You think the woman going nuts on the barista at Colectivo is out of line? Put yourself in her shoes and try to imagine what it’s like being an asshole. I’ve been an asshole and a nice person and I can tell you it’s way more work to be the former. Where I once would have rolled my eyes and possibly even stepped up to say, “pipe down, woman” I have now learned to flex my empathy muscle instead. “Oh, honey,” I like to begin, concern dripping from each syllable like maple syrup. “What happened to you when you were young?”
Most people stop their nonsense on the spot, suddenly aware that there just might be someone bat shit crazier than them on premises. Others will break down and tell you about Catholic grade school or the time they were frightened by a clown. Regardless, your little moment of kindness has defused the situation, and the barista will be grateful. (He will still get your name wrong on your cup.)
2. Take a moment to breathe.
Also an easy one. Next time someone is being inappropriate beyond the pale, pull your collar away from your throat and gasp for air. Fling yourself to the ground, flailing just slightly, until the other person asks, “Are you okay?!”
They will have pretty much forgotten the track they were on a moment earlier, and you have extended them the great kindness of shutting them up. The ploy expires the moment they start up again, but you have succeeded in altering their bad behavior for a full moment or two—or however long you can tolerate lying on the floor at Costco, flopping about like a suicidal goldfish.
When they repeat the question “are you all right?” you get to say, “Depends. Are you gonna stop talking?” As with almost all my suggestions for being kind, you will want to quickly walk away at this point.
3. Assume the other person is a good person, just confused.
This is a deceptively simple antidote to people who say and do stupid stuff. No matter what it is—talking smack about a mutual friend, espousing a political view in sharp opposition to your own moral code, or snatching the last firm kohlrabi from right under your nose—assuming the other person is basically decent but confused is a life saver for all involved.
It’s classic when someone slams a mutual friend to say, “Yet she always speaks so highly of you.” But consider the head-scratching response you’ll get when the next time Uncle Jurgen rants and raves about your bleeding heart and the starving widows and orphans who’ve taken all the good jobs away from regular Americans, you drape your arm over his shoulder and say, “Dear heart, the blue frog is always shinier at midnight.” Then walk quickly away. Crisis averted. Thanksgiving saved. Uncle Jurgen is, for once, quiet, which is a kindness upon everyone.
4. Pretend the other person is someone you like.
A recent study showed that we are less likely to rip the head off someone if the someone is someone we like. Full disclosure, it is my study and it was conducted as an experiment in my brain. I thought about the time the woman in front of me at the movies was texting. I know I’ve hit an 8.4 on the antagonization Richter scale when I can hear my own blood pressure roaring in my ears. I came this close to hurling a stubby 4oz bottle of $12 movie water at the woman’s head. Then I pretended she was Betty White.
Suddenly my blood pressure returned to pre-audible and I wondered if Betty was checking on her dogs, answering a grandchild who was worried when she didn’t answer her door (because she was at the movies) or maybe she was communicating with her agent, negotiating a contract for a film role in which case my blood pressure shot back up and I wanted to smack the white off Betty’s little old face. Really? You couldn’t do that in the lobby, I thought.
Then I pretended she was Mother Theresa and I barely noticed the texting for the next five or ten seconds. After that I sought out the pimply-faced manager and tattled my ass off. He, of course, did nothing and to this day I do not know how Titanic ends, but the bigger point is that I did not clobber the lady with my water bottle, and I consider that kind.
5. Deliver an Oscar-worthy performance as someone who is kind.
When we were little and given to making faces that my Grandma Rose found creepy, annoying, sassy or simian, she’d warn us that one day our faces would freeze like that. She said it so often and with such conviction that against all the scientific hypotheses ten-year-olds could conjure, we started to believe her. It did not stop us from making the ugly faces, but at least I was wondering what kind of future job I’d be good for if my permanent expression was that of a petulant Bonobo. #ImaWriter. The point is, repetition is retention, and if we can just act like kind people, the theory goes, we will become kind people.
Next time I encounter a person who moderately annoys me, I will become Meryl Streep playing me, but nicer and with a Czech accent because that’s a sexy one to have. If I Streep out often enough when I’m only just slightly perturbed, the next time someone pushes all my buttons I should be able—by the Grandma Rose repetition is retention school of medieval superstitions—to say in my most pleasant made-up Czech voice, “Daaaaah-link, your jokes are adorable.”
After blinking a few times as though he or she feels a stye coming on, the other person will likely proclaim, “I wasn’t being funny” to which I will say with a disarming smile, “You were, trust me.” And then I shall quickly walk away. This is a much kinder response to someone who is being an idiot than my patented knee jerk proclamation, “You’re a fucking idiot.”
6. Just…be kind.
As long as I knew her, which was my whole life, my mom did this thing when an ambulance passed by or we heard a siren in the distance. She’d make us say a prayer for whomever was injured or sick. As I got a little older it annoyed me to no end. We’d be in the middle of a conversation or a really good song on the radio and everything would stop so we could say some dumb prayer for someone we didn’t even know. I had a million reasons why it was a waste of time. After that, whenever an ambulance zoomed by, my mom would move her lips in silent prayer.
I was weeding the garden yesterday when I heard an ambulance in the distance and I stopped what I was doing for a moment, wondering whether the emergency vehicle was on its way to pick up an elderly woman who had fallen, or maybe a man who’d had a heart attack. I realized my mom’s prayers weren’t silly at all. She was being kind.
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!