Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Men and Women and Channels

I saw this postcard and it reminded me of an exchange my husband and I had twenty-two long years ago.

We were getting ready to move south with our two-and-a-half-year-old twins.  We were headed for teaching jobs and needed to supply a recent physical. The only GP (general practitioner) near to where we were living and covered by our insurance was someone unknown to us, but what the heck?  It was just a simple physical.

The doctor (I can't remember his name) was an old-timer — looked like someone's Grampa.  Could have been in his late 70s and as old as he was, so was his office.  The walls were painted that dated Williamsburg green throughout. The furnishings looked as if they were from the 50s.  He did his examinations of us separately but then had us come together into his dark office with its massive wooden desk. We sat across from him while he painstakingly filled out the forms we needed to take to our new employer.

"So — how long you folks been married?" he inquired, looking at us over his eyeglasses.

"Well, just over five years," I answered wondering why he was asking.

"And how're things going for ya?" he asked peering first at me and then at my husband.

We shot each other a glance before I replied somewhat hesitantly, "Well — pretty good —  we've got a lot going on with two young kids, this upcoming move where we'll be away from everyone we know, new jobs — it's a lot.  And we don't approach these situations the same way," I added, trying to cover the tension in the pit of my stomach. 

"NO, we definitely don't tackle this stuff the same way at all," declared my husband.

"Well," he said with a bit of a puzzled look on his drawn face, "you know men and women are different, don't ya?" 

"You're telling me?" I said indignantly.

"Well," he replied rather slowly and deliberately, "it's very simple if you just accept that men have three channels and three channels only: work, sports, and nookie.  Whether they play sports or watch'em, that's it.  That's all they've got going.  But women?  Women are running on 85 channels — that's their norm — always operating on multiple channels, monitoring a hundred things at a time.  On a normal day, 85 channels, but on a bad day? On a bad day they can be up to 115 channels — when they go into crisis mode they gotta ratchet things up and believe me, women got lots of bad days.  Now if you understand that difference — and that's a BIG difference to swallow — then you'll get along much better."

We both sat there as if someone had bopped us over the head with a padded mallet you see at boardwalk carnivals.

"Geez." I said a few minutes after what he'd said had sunk in, "You should go on the radio with that, I mean REALLY. That was unbelievable insight, UNBELIEVABLE!  No one, NO ONE has ever explained it that way — but it's true — it's TOTALLY TRUE.  Seriously, you could have your own show," I said dumbfounded at this wisdom.

My husband was smiling at the simple truth of it.  "Geez.  That's really something," he chuckled shaking his head in wonder.

Now all these years later that I come across this postcard.  It visualizes what that doc told us ages ago.  I turn it over.  It's from a German company, and it says,  "Men and women switches  Dr Simplemind ©."

Maybe Dr Simplemind and our simple GP with the wisdom-about-the-sexes knew each other in another life.  I wish,wish,wish I could remember his name.  I don't remember but I hope I said, "Thank you."

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Meeting Vernon Jordan

Back in 1985, when I first started out to be a consultant, my friend Ann, an early childhood specialist (who became like a mother to me) was very involved with the National Head Start Association, an organization of the people who worked for Head Start.  They were looking for a more branded identity and hoped to raise funds to support their lobbying efforts. They needed help pinpointing foundations they could apply to for grants.
A somewhat fuzzy photo of
Vernon Jordan back then.

It was a great opportunity but I had absolutely no experience fundraising.  So I thought I needed to get advice from someone who did.  My childhood friend, Marilyn worked in a law firm with Vernon Jordan — the civil rights activist who had been a principal player with both the United Negro College Fund and the National Urban League. [This was quite awhile before he became a presidential advisor to Bill Clinton.] In my mind, someone like Mr. Jordan would be a perfect person to teach a novice like me. Marilyn agreed to hand deliver the letter I wrote asking to meet.  Fingers crossed.

When I got the call from Mr. Jordan I was scared out of my wits.  I offered to meet him in Washington but he said he was coming to their New York office and that would work — thank goodness — saved me the plane fare.  But now I had to get crack'in — needed to do my homework. Went to the library (yes, an actual library with books — the only place you could do research) and started reading everything I could get my hands on about Vernon Eulion Jordan, Jr.

The Park Avenue offices of Akin, Gump, Strauss & ______ were elegant and hushed — dark woods, lots of leather, very clubby and masculine — very intimidating to the likes of little me. 

"Thank you so much for seeing me Mr Jordan, I really appreciate it and I'm so glad Marilyn   did me this favor, we grew up next door to each other," I dove in feeling as if every second I was sitting in his office I was taking up his valuable time. "I'm trying to help the National Head Start Association raise money — "

"I don't do that any more," he interrupted, "I did my part for the United Negro College Fund and I'm through with that." 

[NOTE: When Vernon Jordan was at the helm for UNCF, Board member Peter Weinsburg urged him to team with Young & Rubicam where they created the “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” campaign which raised $10 million in its first year!]
"I don't want you to do fundraising. I want you to teach me how.  If you can give me some advice, get me started on the right path, I can do the work."  Fortunately, that made sense to him and he opened the door.

He explained what I'd need to say when making my pitch. Shared what the association would have to do in order to apply for funds.  And in-between the teaching, we talked about our backgrounds.  I told him I started working in my parents' drycleaners at the age of 8, by 10 I'd graduated to working the counter.  He told me he went to DePauw University in Green Castle, Indiana where he couldn't get a haircut anywhere in the town because there was no barbershop for Negroes.  I said what I hoped to achieve for NHSA and asked questions about the likelihood of being successful.

He reached for his phone, dialed a
 number, and began telling someone about me and what I was trying to do. He hung up, wrote something on a piece of paper, handed it to me saying, "This is _________ at the Hartford Foundation, she's expecting your call and will set-up an appointment to see you." And before I could say anything he reached for the phone again.

"Thank you!" I stammered, "Thank you SO much!"

"I'm going to call a friend of mine at the Ford Foundation..."

"NO!" I pleaded, my heart pounding. "Thank you but I'm not ready for the Ford Foundation!  Let me get through this first meeting first — please!"

He smiled that famous smile, pushed away from the phone, sat back in his chair, and lit a cigar.  I'd gotten what I came for. More than an hour had flown by.

"Before I go, there's just one last question I want to ask."

"What's that?" he said leaning forward.

"Did your grandfather ever get to go to the bathroom indoors before he died?"

He again smiled that knock-out smile, leaned back grinning, and asked, "Now how did you know about THAT?" 

"I did my homework." I replied  happy that I'd said something unexpected.

"Well, yes, he did  thankfully, I can say he did!"  

As we got up and shook hands, I gushed, "Mr. Jordan, I can't thank you enough.  For the time, for the advice, for being so kind...I'm so grateful..."  and (though I didn't say it) I was grateful I'd survived the meeting.

Standing there he towered over me in size, in experience, in authority  his parting words were  "You are a firecracker and they are lucky to have you working for them."  I left that office beaming and about a foot taller.

The next day I called my Uncle Charlie and had him recommend a really good cigar that wouldn't break my bank account; then I went and bought ten, wrapped and sent them with a thank-you note.  

It was one of my first experiences as a consultant.  Through my childhood friend, I'd gotten the appointment, successfully managed the meeting, came away with advice and an entrĂ©e to the philanthropic world.  But equally valuable, was the lesson he taught me  that  I could sit across from power and hold my own. 

Those cigars were little thanks for what meeting Vernon Jordan generously gave me that day.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


After I hit  Publish , I compulsively check the stats (number of pages viewed) and audience (the countries the readers are from) and immediately pageviews pop-up from the United Kingdom and the United States as soon as I post.  I don't know anyone in the UK so I don't know how they have managed to get what I've posted.  I tried to help my friend Lynn    Subscribe to: Posts (Atom) as it's listed at the bottom of the blog page so she could automatically get my posts, but neither of us could figure out how to do it.

Other than those I know and email to every time I post, for a long time I couldn't figure out how anyone found my blog — let alone someone in Serbia, Saudi Arabia, or Slovakia.  Now I think that you can click onNext Blog» and somehow (magically) a mechanism (somewhere) selects a blog from the blogosphere for you to read — gives you a way to randomly try out different blogs and see if you like them.

Most of my faithful readers in Germany, Russia, France, Italy, Chile and Canada, I personally know 
(thank you Oskar, Frank,Irina, Kate, Marilyn, Michelle, and Therese)...but now I have a small contingent of readers in Latvia, Romania, the Netherlands and Poland. I wish I knew whom you all were.  I'd like to see your faces, hear your thoughts, learn what your lives are like.

Every month I'm surprised by a reader from a completely unexpected place — Columbia, Ireland, New Zealand, Costa RicaMongolia — Mongolia!  Exciting!  To think that someone in  MONGOLIA  is reading what I wrote.  Out of the millions and millions of blogs on (not to mention the other hosting sites) someone in Mongolia was reading my blog. GEEZ!  But I shouldn't get too excited.  They read once and then they go.  Never to return. I wish they'd give me another try.

Tales From Denise James

I'm always happy when a person (Kris) says, "I LOVE your TV and movies reviews!" and then confused when that very same day someone else will share, "All that film stuff is fluff — I wish you'd stick to the personal stuff."  Then a high school buddy (Margee) will tell me, "Honestly, I love your writing but it keeps jumping around and I get into a story and then you jump elsewhere and I never know where the story is going."  Only to be countered by a college friend (Laura) who says, "I LOVE that you jump around!  Whenever I get an email I NEVER know what's going to be waiting — something about your kids or your collections, your art or your travels."  

And speaking of the travel posts — "Frankly, those posts when you're traveling? I find them boring (Lee, Random House friend);  I'd much rather you stick with the relationship writing."  versus  (Barbara, Random House friend) "Oh, when you write about your trips, I feel as if I'm there with you."  Or early on from my college Professor (Tony — I found him after writing about him and now he writes me after every post — wonderful, supportive, often scholarly feedback),  "I think the two most difficult kinds of writing are instructions (you know, like how to put that Chinese-made wine cooler together) and travel stories...Read the Berlin story  A nice read. Congratulations."

When you're sharing your life on a blog, everyone reading it feels in touch with you. They're hearing about you regularly, they're keeping up with what's going on, they feel connected to you, and that's great except for one thing — they know about me but — I don't know anything about them.  I don't feel the connection because I'm sending it all out there but very little is being sent back.  That's something I've come to realize about blogging.  For all the good it does for me, basically, it's a one-way conversation.

As I was writing this, I went out to run some errands and ran into Sally, a friend from the neighborhood.

"Hi Sally!" I gave her a hug because I was glad our paths crossed and I hadn't seen her in quite a while.

"Hi!" she said hugging me back, "I know I haven't seen you, but I feel I'm keeping up with you because I read your blog..."

See what I mean?

In some ways this technology has connected me to a wide world of readers near and far, ones I know and ones I don't.  And while I can't say how many readers, I can say I'm almost at 18,000 pageviews — which isn't much in the blogosphere but honestly  — it's the universe to me.

SO — why do I still feel so d-i-s-c-o-n-n-e-c-t-e-d ?
[On a less cranky note: I had a reader from  Finland  this week!]
[AND two days after posting, a reader in  Iraq  and another in Tunisia ...amazing.]

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Big Disconnect...

On our local PBS radio station I listened to Diane Rehm interview Catherine Steiner-Adair who'd written, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Agewith Teresa H. Barker.  As a reviewer in The Washington Post explains, this book "warns that our rampant use of technology is jeopardizing family connections vital to every child’s well-being."  

From The Christian Science Monitor ...Children as young as six arrive in her office, shaken by what they’ve seen: violent TV news in airport waiting areas; mean messages posted on Facebook; disturbing sexual images accidentally opened on an iPhone. The “magic of the iPad” has replaced the magic of the playground. Today’s children, says Steiner-Adair, are “in over their heads and they need adult help.”  Nor is it simply what our children are exposed to. Equally troubling is what these plugged-in kids are not learning: critical steps in the development process such as empathy, negotiating skills, impulse control, sustained attention, and the capacity to be alone and connect with oneself. She laments the loss of boredom – which this plugged-in generation seldom feels – as the critical first step to creativity.

Now, as a parent and an educator, I truly understand the issues and concerns about the way in which we have allowed technology to invade our lives and that of our children.  I love TV — but I know the pervasiveness of media and technology has its costs and for all we gain (more about that another time), there are losses.  To someone my age it IS troubling when all you see around you are people and their devices. 

When I wrote about attending a Feist concert, I mentioned we were sitting next to a couple of 23-yr-olds (about the age of our kids) and while we were waiting for the show to begin (a prime opportunity to share thoughts and excited anticipation) they were each on their smartphones, fingers flashing.  

"Excuse me, but are you two here on a date?" I inquired hesitantly.

"Well, not exactly.  We're friends," the young woman replied with a giggle, their focus still on their phones, fingers flying.

"But don't you want to talk to each other while you're here, instead of talking to other people?" I asked them.

"Well," she said politely and patiently, "we're actually playing a game with each other." she replied smiling at my ignorance.

"OH."  I was dumbfounded.   It didn't make sense to me.  It seemed completely anti-social.  Why would they choose to interact in silence?  I knew if I mentioned this at some point to my kids they'd just be annoyed that I bothered these people who were minding their own business. (Unlike me.)  I just didn't get it.

Every year we go to a documentary film festival and it's always four days of non-stop screenings, so many that by the last day, you begin to get bleary-eyed — but it's all worth it.  One of the things I've always loved about Full Frame (in addition to the incredible documentaries we see),  is the people you meet.  Sitting on lines waiting to get your tickets or get into the next film, while you're in the venue waiting for the film to start — you could always start a discussion with the most interesting people from all over the country.  Some were graduate students in film, some people like us, mothers with their daughters, a group of women friends who come to the festival as their annual outing, filmmakers with stories to tell — quirky, disturbing, amazing, unusual, compelling, heart-wrenching films that take us inside the places, the pasts, the lives, the dreams of so many courageous individuals who creatively tell their stories or that of someone else to lift us where they want their audience to go.

Two years ago, I noticed a huge change.  Wherever I was, whatever line I standing or sitting on, everyone around me was on their smartphone, laptop or iPad.  Maybe the people would talk to the person they were with or the group they were in, but they weren't engaging with strangers.  Not on line, not in the theatre, and not after the film.  It made me sad.  It made my experience not as rich.  It eliminated the random connections with people that I had grown to love about the festival because these possibilities were not present in my daily life.

That's one big difference between living in a big city and living elsewhere.  In a suburb you go everywhere by car.  You get in to your car to drive to work, go to the store, pick-up the kids, head for the movies.  In a big city you rely on public transportation and you're always making these connections with total strangers.  Crowded on a bus, jammed into a subway car you see what people are wearing, smell their scents, overhear their conversations about how the meeting went with their boss, what they're having for dinner, or what the shrink said at their last session.  For me, it was always a terrific reality check on the human condition.  It gave me insight into how other people were living their lives and when you travel by car, you don't get that experience.

Here is an example of what can happen.

It was 1994 and I was back in Manhattan visiting family and friends.  I'd just seen my best friend Susan and she'd kindly given me a bag of children's books for my kids.  This was a huge thing because kids' books can be ferociously expensive and with twins, well, our book-buying funds were limited.  I hopped on the crosstown bus but it was rush hour so I knew I was in for a long ride.  Luckily, I'd squeezed into a seat before it was standing-room-only — I was next to a guy buried in his Wall Street Journal and a twenty-something who could best be described as punk-Goth, in black from head-to-toe, including all her make-up.  

I reached into my bag and pulled out the first book my hand grasped...

Doll Face Has a Party!
It didn't look like any kid's picture book I knew, but it looked intriguing so I opened and began to read this bizarre tale where all the characters were inanimate objects — fork, spoon, plate, cup — they all played a role in getting this party on the road. After a page or two of reading I realized that punk-Goth was reading too, so I very carefully made sure to hold the book wide open and to leave enough time before turning the page to be sure she'd read the limited text.  When I came to The End frankly, I was disturbed; I turned to my seat mate and asked, "Whadya think?"

She looked up from the page, turned to me completely deadpan and simply said   Schizophrenic "

It was an unexpected and completely legitimate response that propelled us into gabbing about children's literature, illustrations, surrealism, this, that, and the other thing, until finally it was time for me to go.  As the bus slowed to a stop and I stood waiting for the back-exit doors to open, I turned toward my punk-Goth reading-buddy and smiled my good-bye.  I didn't know her name, I'd never see her again, but here it is, almost twenty years later and I'm still smiling over that great, shared moment we'd had.

And we had that moment because our heads weren't buried in our cellphones.

Though the book is long out of print (but available to buy online) thought you might get a kick out of reading excerpts from two reviews that were written at the time — and confirmed our reactions!

...the text has a sweet, innocent style well suited to the world of toys in which the most difficult problem is a quest for dessert. Selznick's highly assertive, surrealistic cartoon style evokes a sophisticated attitude that, though arresting, seems disconcertingly at odds with Conrad's gentle characterizations. Doll Face is depicted not as a chubby-cheeked nursery favorite, but as a Barbielike doll bearing some resemblance to Marilyn Monroe. She stares out from the book cover with a plastic face, painted sweetheart mouth, black beauty mark, pink bouffant hair style, glassy blue eyes, and thin painted brows, one of which consistently arches higher than the other. Her expression is enigmatic and unchanging throughout. When she eats the delicious Sweet Cake, a large fork smashes the pink-and-white treat against her lips. The illustrations, while stylish and interesting, dominate the text, which perhaps explains why Doll Face seems to have no fun at her own party. Oddly unsatisfying. From School Library Journal

...Doll Face, in snazzy rose-colored party clothes and with hair like pink spaghetti strands, roams waiflike through a forest of shag carpet and table legs. Luminescent colors and baroque wallpaper backdrops deepen the sense of fantasy, of having stumbled upon a dreamscape. This is a clever picture book, a distant relative of Alice in Wonderland , but ultimately there is something sad and unsettling about the wooden doll who throws a party for herself.  From Publishers Weekly