Sunday, June 24, 2012

All About Angst

While I'm away and taking a break from writing, I hope you'll take a look back and read something you missed, or forward to a friend...Denise James

All About Angst: A Face of Race, Write Your Life, Alice-Not-in-Wonderland

Thursday, June 21, 2012

More on Authentic Happiness

In our short four-session class on Authentic Happiness, our teacher Ben tried to give us a smattering of the related philosophies.  One of his favorite’s was Dr Martin Seligman, a promoter of positive psychology and author of Authentic Happiness and Flourish.  Seligman advocates well-being through the acronym PERMA:

    Positive emotion (I thought of the palm reader telling me to smile more)
    Meaning or purpose
    Accomplishment or achievement
Through my writing I’m finding so much of what Seligman says we need.  Certainly I’m feeling a deep sense of engagement with the writing and with what it requires both practically and emotionally.  This blog is the first time I’ve made a commitment to myself and kept it.  While I pretty much always keep all my commitments to others, I don't keep my commitments to myself.  This is a first.

I feel a sense of relationship and connection because I'm more connected to all of you who are reading — even those I don’t know elsewhere in the world. In addition to the regulars in Russia, Canada, Hong Kong, Germany and Chile — recently there have been a few in Hungary, the Palestinian Territories, Australia, and the Philippines — though I seem to have lost connection to my readers in the UK. Still, your emails and comments let me know we are connecting.

Given that I am tech-challenged, for me there’s a great sense of accomplishment at having created a blog — and at seeing the numbers rise. (Sixty posts thus far, 6500+ pageviews!)

And when it comes to meaning and purpose — well, I do wonder if looking back is actually helpful.  Does it makes sense to rehash what was and what wasn't?  What do you think?

For more on authentic happiness,
 our class watched a TedTalk by BrenĂ© Browna research professor, on the power of vulnerability.  It's full of insights about hurt and shame and how our society doesn't deal well with negative feelings.  Every time I listen to it, I get something good out of it.

And speaking of listening, my therapist recently gave me some profound advice on how to improve the way I relate
to my newly adult children. 

    “They want your engagement emotionally, not practically."  (Translation: They’re generally not looking for my advice.) 

    and her most valuable insight —

   “During this period of transition, you need to have BIG EARS, small mouth.”
That is great advice.

I've decided that for me there is value in looking back.  Until I understand, acknowledge, celebrate and/or mourn the events of my past, how can I fully move forward?  Through this writing I'm going to try to do what BrenĂ© Brown says in her talk  —  

Lean into the discomfort.”

Maybe in your way, you will too.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Turnaround

To fully understand and perhaps appreciate this post, you need to have read Falling Short Part One and Part Two...
I'd been gone from my class for over a month. My world was now consumed with breastfeeding, changing, bathing, and loving two babies. We were planning to move out of the city.  Things were in flux.

When the phone rang I was surprised it was Judy Budd, my principal.

"You'll never guess who marched himself into my office today." she said. I could hear the grin on her face through the telephone.


"James Walker."

James did everything in his power to avoid the principal's office but he inevitably landed there.

"James ?" I asked in shock. "Why ?

"He said,

'If you don't move me outta that room I'm gonna get in big trouble.' Can you believe it?"

I couldn't. I could not believe it.

"What did you do?"

"I moved him into Cindy DeJoie's room."

I smiled from ear-to-ear. Cindy was called "the drill sergeant" by the rest of us. If anyone could keep James in line — it would be her. She was young, tough, caring. A great teacher.

"You have to hand it to him," Judy said instructively, "It was a pretty mature thing to do."

So. There was hope for James Walker after all.

And for me.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


I wrote this piece a few years back.  I forgot about it.  I just came across it.  It still seemed relevant.
Why is it that whenever I have this great brainstorm — this real revelation that I feel will open the door to all that I desire  I find out that someone’s already had that same enlightenment and it’s no longer a big deal?  Why is that?  That never happened to my sister.  She’d have these incredible light bulbs go off — have a spectacular idea that no one was doing.  It was pristine  still undiscovered.  But she didn't act on them.  She just talked about them, got you excited, and then after a while, when you realized she wasn't actually going to move on her idea, then you’d start to read about it or hear about it on TV or be startled when it was the cover story on some magazine touting the idea as the next great thing. 

This happened a lot over my lifetime with my sister.  First it was personal shopping and doing errands and things for other people who were too busy to do these things for themselves.  Then it was bag lunches and gourmet take-out.  She was convinced that people were sick of the same old lunch stuff and if you packed a good old-fashioned bag lunch and went to an office building and offered them for sale, you couldn’t go wrong — a few years later the box-lunch craze took off and is still a staple of office meetings, field trips, etc.  Whenever I saw her ideas realized by someone else, it hurt me.  It hurt me that she didn’t act on what she intuited…which is why when I was finally resting at the end of my Nia class at the Y  after a challenging body movement session patterned after different martial arts genres, after I’d moved muscles I didn't know I had and was thankful to be meditating at rest on my mat, thankful I’d made it through another class and gotten some exercise for this out-of-shape-over-weight body  that the idea came to me … STUCK.  That would be the name of my book!  The book that I’d been thinking about for years and years and years.  The collection of creative non-fiction that I’d been writing but never doing anything with. 

This fall I was laid-off from work and I thought, "Now’s the time.  Now’s when I should work on that collection of my writing and put those pieces into some kind of order that makes sense."  But organizing them was the hard part.  What unites them?  What’s the thread that weaves through them, other than they’re about me and my life experiences.  And then there it was …"stuck.”  They were all about being stuck in a place that trapped one from moving forward  toward happiness, fulfillment, contentment, satisfaction, pleasure.  It seemed it wasn't only me that had these issues.  

I’d recently been on an informal women’s "retreat" and though I’d met these women a year ago, I barely knew them  save for knowing the most intimate fears of each.  That’s what happens in one these gatherings  you get a chance to open and unload the absolute best and worst you have to share and you get feedback and nurturing and a kick-in-the-butt and whatever else you might need because that’s what we’re all there for.  And then, you all leave and drive or fly back to where you came from and hole up for another year, stuck in the life you’re living and not really making progress.  

Oh, there are always one or two women who have made progress.  And that’s what you yearn for.  Someone else’s success at this life could translate to yours!  You might get the encouragement or the insight you need to make that difference.  But often you don’t.  You keep dreaming about it, pining for it, pondering why it isn't, complaining about the state of things that you can’t seem to change.  SO when I thought of the title STUCK  it seemed miraculous to me; as if I’d found the key to open that long closed door that weighed massively in front of me my whole life.

Charged with this new energy, sure that this title, this title alone would propel me toward the finish I’d long hoped for  I raced to the computer and Googled “Amazon” and typed in “Stuck” and not the first entry, but the second was:

“STUCK:  BREAK OUT OF YOUR EMOTIONAL PRISON AND GET ON WITH YOUR LIFE by John Volkmer   Dog Ear Publishing, LLC (October 25, 2006)

Book Description: STUCK! is a manual with easy-to-follow steps and exercises for those of us who feel trapped in a negative condition which blocks us from moving forward and experiencing an exciting and fulfilling life. Some of the feelings associated with this negative condition may include: I just live day by day and don't make any plans for the future. I don't experience joy in my life. I almost never finish anything I start. I have relationship problems. On some days, nothing is right…” 

Hmmm.  My great revelation was taken.  Teasingly Amazon asked, “Did I mean unstuck?” and that yielded not one, not two, but more than ten Unstuck manuals for how to get things done in one’s life.  Forget my book, I should forget writing, I should just be reading to make things happen.  Finding out about “Stuck” I felt stuck all over again.

Still stuck or unstuck, books or no books, it was up to me.  I had the power or lack of it to make things happen. The thought was paralyzing.

It’s been two days since I began writing this  two days more of being stuck.  I can’t use that title or its reverse.  I’ll have to abandon the idea and find something else to propel me forward, push me to writing what I want to say what I feel will help me and help others.  I don’t know that it will but it seems as if telling your story can produce wonders.

Take Jessica Seinfeld.  She wrote a book, Deceptively Delicious, about sneaking vegetables into your child’s diet  something many, many, many of the reasonably good and nutritionally motivated moms know and do.  A celebrity wife writes the book, it's promoted, and before you know it, she’s on Oprah 1,500,00 copies later!  Why didn't we do that first?  Come to think of it, apparently someone else did  was it copyright infringement?  There was a legal brouhaha.  The other mom’s book, The Sneaky Chef, got some attention  but not a million in sales.

How tough can this book business be?  
In some ways, tough.  Very, very tough.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Mothers and Daughters

Dr. Annie Cotten, a lovely older woman I know who is a licensed marriage and family therapist, shared with me one of her research questionnaires.  Whether you're a daughter or not, perhaps you'll be moved to answer these questions about your relationship with your mom.
List the event in your life which triggered the most positive (best) event in your relationship with your mother. What specific behavior occurred? How old were you then and where were you on this occasion?

It was the first time I was home from college.  My mother and I went shopping. I was 18 and driving my mother’s yellow Bonneville on Rte 17 in NJ and we were having some conversation when she said, “I think people should live together before they get married.”  I almost drove off the road!   When I said in shock, “WHAT ??”  she said that living together was hard enough and it was better to find out how you really got along BEFORE you got married.  

It FLOORED me.  It was very contrary to her earlier pronouncements when I was in high school that a man and a woman could not sleep in the same room together without having sex  no matter how I tried to convince her that in fact this WAS possible, she just didn't believe it. 

Though I’d always known my mother was forward-thinking, that moment I realized my mother was far more open-minded than I had given her credit for and it made me see her in a very different way.

Now explain the event in your life which triggered the most negative (worst) event in your relationship with your mother? 

I was always disappointed that my parents did not help me financially even though I had been through some very tough times. I had a brother who was constantly a drain on them financially throughout my life  since my tweens. They barely helped me with paying for college, they didn't pay for my wedding.  They didn't even offer us assistance when my husband was unemployed, we had twin babies, and I wasn't working.  Though we never asked, a number of family and friends on both sides sent us money to tide us over.  

When I was in my mid-forties, my mother asked my sister (who was 7-1/2 years older and much closer to my mother) what was I still hurt/angry about all these years later and my sister mentioned this lack of financial support.  My mother’s response?  “Well she never asked.”  When my sister (who lived in California) told me this over the phone, I was infuriated.   I never asked?  I never asked because my brother’s continuous legal issues taxed them so, I felt I couldn't ask.  I didn't want to be a burden. But I expected their help when I needed it; they were the parents, the adults.

Though I never had this experience with my mother (my sister was the conduit of this information) and I never brought it up — it changed how I felt about my mother
Within a few years my mother developed dementia. I fought for legal guardianship (as my sister was too ill to do this and asked me to) and my mother came to live with us for two 
years until her death but it never seemed “the right time” to bring it up.  

It still hurts and hurts worse to know that my own children may want something from me that I am not giving them.  I hope they ask.  I hope I respond.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Adventures at Finch - That's Entertainment!

Julie was not someone I expected to meet at Finch. In the class behind mine, she had a languid sexy manner that made you think she would meander her way through life mesmerizing you with her Midwestern drawl and her inquisitive way. From Ohio, she was a New Yorker at heart.  She loved,loved, loved Manhattan. She loved the hustle, the bustle, the buildings, and the people.  She loved art, the theater, and fashion.  From the time we became friends, she was forever dragging me to see plays, concerts, movies, or art exhibits  one after another. 

Uptown to the Whitney, the Frick; downtown to Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and Greenwich Village
  where we heard Melissa Manchester sing in a small bar with a stage.   In 1971 Manchester had been hired by Barry Manilow and Bette Midler (whom Julie saw on Broadway in the now-famous Clams on the Half Shell Revue) to be a back-up singer, but she was still trying to strike out on her own.  We were close to the stage and I kept saying how small her hands and fingers were.  But her voice was enormous.

1974 was a stellar year for us  January in particular.  From the balcony of the Morosco Theatre, we saw Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst, and Ed Flanders in A Moon for the Misbegotten. Three remarkable actors embodying the angst of Eugene O’Neill. Clive Barnes, the theater critic for the New York Times wrote, "This is a landmark production that people are going to talk about for many years. " The cast's portrayals of these flawed and tragic characters was so powerful that people were actually holding their breath during the soliloquies.  I remember thinking, “This is what it means when people say, ‘It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.”

After a seven-year-plus hiatus, Bob Dylan decided to return to the stage and perform with The Band.  One of the concert dates was on Julie's birthday at the end of the month and she was determined we would go. "The tickets were hard to get.  Had to mail in a check and it was a crap shoot.  I mailed the check at five minutes after midnight and didn't get the damn tickets.  A friend knew someone at Madison Square Garden who got us tickets."  Alan Bershaw wrote,  "Over five million paid mail orders were reportedly sent in for the 650,000 tickets available over the course of the [43-day] tour, making them the most in-demand ticket in the history of rock music."   The music was incredible; Dylan was incredible, but what I remember most from that night  it was the first time people lit and held up their Bic lighters (these had just come out in 1973). Everyone holding their flame high to create a sea of tiny flickering lights in the surrounding darkness of that massive arena. 

Here's Redford on our street
Later that year, next to one of the magnificent buildings that was a Finch dorm was the location of a film shoot for Three Days of the Condor with Robert Redford on the block!  It was the office where he works at the beginning of the film, a CIA front.  We were all scurrying around, hanging out on 77th Street to catch a glimpse of him and when we did   he was short!  

After I graduated from Finch and Julie went back to Ohio, I still went to see plays.  In 1976 I saw Equus with Richard Burton.  My sister was a huge fan of Elizabeth Taylor and even though he wasn’t with Liz at the time (he was in a marriage with “Susan”) I still thought it would be great if I could get his autograph for Donna  so along with crowds of others, I waited at the stage door after the emotionally harrowing performances of this disturbing play. [He won a Special Tony for his performance in his limited 14-week run.]

The mob scene was so great that when Burton came out of the door (with publicist and whomever else in tow) people started surging, and he was quickly engulfed by bodies straining to get a glimpse, a touch, a smile. The throng pushed him into a tight channel of humanity between the theatre and his waiting limo. All of a sudden I found myself smashed up against him, face-to-face in the mob. At first I couldn’t say anything because I was so shocked at how short he was!  Only inches taller than me! I was trying to get over my frozen state when he looked me straight in the eyes (his piercing green eyes) and said in his unmistakable Welsh voice, 

“We simply can’t go on meeting this way. Susan wouldn’t like it.”  

And I simply melted. If it hadn't been for the crush of bodies keeping me upright, I probably would've slid to the ground. And then, before I could think to say anything, anything at all, New York’s Finest  mounted on horses came jostling in to break up the crowd and get Sir Richard (well, not-titled yet) to the door of his limo (Susan inside) and whisked away. 

Jules, thank you.  For Melissa, Dylan, Redford, Burton, Warhol
  and so much more.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Adventures at Finch - Skating

We’d been ice-skating at Wollman Rink in Central Park. I wasn’t very good at it, weak ankles, but it was fun trying to sail around in the cold crisp air. Liz and I were walking back to our dorm at Finch College on 77th between Park and Madison, wrapped in hats, mittens and scarves.  Liz had her skates slung over her shoulders.  We were almost at 77th St when we saw a very pretty, petite woman walking our way.

“Oh my God, that’s Julie Christie!”

“NO! I can’t believe it!  Let’s talk to her!”  Excitedly Liz and I skipped alongside. 

“Hi Miss CHRISTIE!!! We’re such big fans!” we gushed.

She smiled saying, “Why thank you very much. And where are you off to?

“We’re headed to our dorm, we're in college.” and pointed to Chalk House as we rounded the corner.

“And I am going here,” she announced as she headed for the canopy of the apartment building caddy-corner to ours. The front of the building was lined with limos and very well-dressed folks were getting out of those limos in jewels and furs.

“What’s going on?” Liz asked 

“A fundraiser. For the next President of the United States!” was Julie Christie’s pronouncement.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“George McGovern of course!” and she steered toward the door and away from us.

We were completely star struck. We could hardly think of one movie Julie Christie had ever been in!  Giggling at our good fortune, we waved goodbye and ran into our dorm to tell everyone. Wow. Julie Christie on our block.  
Julie Christie across the street.  

“We have to crash that party,” Liz said with determination.

“Are you kidding?”  I couldn’t believe she even thought that was possible. "There’s a doorman. We don’t have an invitation.”

“We’d have to get dressed, REALLY dressed,” she said ignoring me as she opened her closet door and began searching through her clothes and pulling out her dressiest dresses.

“GEEZ, you’re serious!”

“Yes I am.  Now stop sitting around.  Go get changed.”

I was not believing she meant it. I mean we didn’t even know which apartment!  

I had this chocolate brown midi-dress (which I loved) with a Mandarin collar and a gold and red embroidered dragon on the fitted bodice, with long sleeves and a full skirted bottom that twirled when I spun around.  With heeled boots it was the classiest thing I owned.

“You need jewelry,” Liz directed, “lots of gold jewelry. Borrow some.”

So I went next door where Julie, Peggy and Kathi dumped out their jewelry boxes and plied me with wide hoop earrings, gold cuff bracelets, and chunky rings.

As people gathered in my room watching us put on make-up, someone threw me their long brown suede shearling coat.  In 20 minutes we were ready. I looked the part and Liz did too.

We headed back down, out the front door, across the street. The reason we kept going was that everyone was at their windows watching us. No one believed we could do it.  Not even me.  The first hurdle was to get into the building.

The doorman opened the door.

“The McGovern party?” I said in a questioning voice.

“Eleventh floor." and he waved us toward the elevator. We got in. 

When the elevator door shut we whispered in disbelief, "I cannot believe we got in this building!!!"  and we were laughing when suddenly the elevator doors opened and we were IN the apartment.  No hallway, just in the apartment where someone was waiting to take our coats and hang them onto an already-full garment rack that had been placed just inside the door.  We quickly sobered up. A waiter soon offered us glasses of champagne which we took and sipped, as we slid into the main room. We were trying to lose ourselves in the crowd.  We edged further into the room by a railing, looked down into the sunken living room scouting out the room — looking for Julie Christie. There she was, in the middle, surrounded by people. 

“We have to go and talk to her." 
Liz was firm.  "We have to." 

So we slowly inched our way toward the knot of people clustered around her waiting for our break.  "Hello, Miss Christie
 — remember us?” 

We tried to stay totally calm. 

“Well that was certainly a quick change,” as she recognized us from the street.

“We crashed the party!”  We were trying to chat with her easily when 
I burst out, “God! Is that Maximillian Schell over there?”  (So much for easily.) 

“Yes it is,” she smiled.

I was trying hard to say something meaningful. “I LOVED Fahrenheit 451!  What was it like making that movie?”

“Well, you know it was Oskar’s [Werner] first English film. 
(No, we didn't know.) So it was a bit difficult for him.” 

We couldn't believe she was talking to us and telling us this stuff!  We couldn’t believe our good fortune. It was beyond belief.  Then we noticed someone with a camera snapping our picture with her and then whispering to someone, who then turned to whisper to someone else.

 — we gotta go — someone’s gonna figure out we don’t belong,” we stuttered. 

As we turned to go, she quickly said, “Now I can’t vote here, because I’m not a citizen
 — but you can.” 

“Oh, we will!” we called back, as we headed for the elevator to find our coats and escape out of there.

“No one will believe us. No one." Liz said as we scrambled into our coats.  "How can we prove we were really here?”

Quite fortuitously, a waiter walked by with a tray of empty glasses, headed for the kitchen.  
“Let’s each take a wine glass!” and so we did.  We each took an empty wine glass as the waiter walked by and after he turned down a hallway, we shoved them in the deep pockets of my borrowed winter coat, took the elevator down to the lobby and went back into the cold, crisp night. 

We were both pretty silent as we crossed the street and headed up to our rooms. People had been waiting at their windows — on watch to see when we would emerge from that building (after having hidden in the lobby or been kicked out by the doorman). We drifted upstairs as if we were skating on ice. Quickly people were surrounding us, trailing behind to hear what happened, now a small crowd. 

“WHAT HAPPENED??!!” everyone asked.

“We talked to JULIE CHRISTIE!” we said in unison.

“You DIDN’T!!” people yelled.

We did,” we said smilingly
 — as we each reached into the pockets, held up the wine glasses and watched their faces drop.