Tuesday, September 27, 2011

E-warning! I'm going to ramble.

The poverty level in the U.S. has risen for the fourth straight year. I don’t have a clear idea of what poverty means today. When do you reach that point where you say: “Oh, I’m at the poverty level. How did this happen?”
The conservative Heritage Foundation says living in poverty is better than many people imagine. (Possibly because none of the members has lived in poverty.) Due to housing and food subsidies, poverty doesn’t necessarily exclude having a television or two, a computer, internet service, a dishwasher or Nike sneakers. You might not be able to afford a personal trainer but you can probably get a free gym membership. Even if you’re not quite at the poverty level there are many handouts for people whose income is under a certain amount. You can receive help with your heating bill and your electric bill. You can get food stamps and could spend them on Lays salt and vinegar chips and Entenmann's powdered donuts if you wanted to.
I have some markers for what rich means. Rich is going into Citarella and throwing some Tuscan herbs into the cart without a thought even though they are 3.95 for .56 oz bringing the per pound price to $125. I don’t know if Citarella takes food stamps but I’d like to see the cashier’s face when someone hands them in. (Citarella is where I buy mesclun. It’s loose and has a good ratio of radicchio and frisée to baby beet greens, etc.)
Rich sometimes means being able to take a long hot shower any time it suits you. A long hot shower especially if the shower has a built in seat and is exclusively yours, is an activity that makes me feel financially healthy if not outright rich. Also keeping the house at 72 degrees in winter. Whenever anyone walks into my house in winter they say, “It feels good in here.” You bet it does.
Poverty level varies wildly depending on the city you live in. In New York City, you can be at the poverty level and make $100,000 a year not only because of the high rents and high food costs but because the figure messes with your good sense.
“Hey, mom, guess how much this job pays a year?”
“How much?”
“Wow, Bobby, that’s a lot.”
Bobby begins charging like an AlphaPower Battery and pretty soon his Visa bill is at $30,000 from eating out and taking trips and buying rounds of drinks and before you know it Bobby is in debt and having to call Suzy Orman’s show and ask her to approve any purchase.
There are no subsidies that dispel the psychological disgrace a father or mother might feel when the family slips into the poverty level. The Brookings Institution says that in spite of having certain amenities, poor families face severe challenges. They probably have, as the Department of Agriculture so romantically puts it “food insecurity.” That’s a phrase I would use for single males living alone but it turns out it’s a phrase the Agriculture Department has for poverty level citizens. I take back everything I’ve thought and said about the dullness of government bureaucrats. Somebody there had an existential thought:
“What shall we call it when people feel they won’t be able to buy the food they want?”
“Call it food insecurity.”
Again this doesn’t mean that you don’t have the staples or that you can compete in the poverty sweepstakes with a family from Bangladesh. It only means you have free-floating anxiety about your food supply. (Many middle-class families also have free-floating anxiety about food when tomatoes are 3.29 a pound.) The Department of Agriculture says 17.2 million households were defined as “food insecure” last year.
Even if you are living at the “poverty level” you are not destitute - a word you don’t hear much about. The dictionary defines destitute as: lacking the necessities of life and the synonyms are penniless, impoverished, insolvent, on the breadline. I have not seen any statistics for people who are destitute.
The truly forgotten when it comes to the empathy spotlight is the middle-class, the breadwinners who are just barely hanging in there. These families earn too much to qualify for subsidies and earn too little to avoid constant worry. They are “future insecure.” They have to make ends meet all on their own and there is no safety net.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

#SampleSunday: Faith is the substance of things hoped for. The evidence of things not seen. – St. Paul

(Excerpt from One Hundred Open Houses)

Easter came exactly when it should that year, on the second Sunday of April. My two older children, Max and Ben stayed in Europe where they were backpacking before starting new jobs. The younger two, Maggie and Harry, were going to visit their father with my blessing. I had toyed with the idea of baking an entire Easter meal and taking it to my mother (a “cooking at 5 a.m. and schlepping “ marathon I had practiced during my Mother Teresa phase) but wisely I settled on a candy and flowers delivery. It was odd having a holiday without all the usual preparations. I had a new understanding about buying food. Food that had to be prepared brought with it responsibility. What good was it to go out of your way to select Swiss chard with gorgeous voluptuous fronds from the greengrocer if they were going to wilt and wrinkle in the crisper drawer? I didn’t want to dispose of an entire Smithfield ham but I did select four Empire apples to bake in the toaster oven.
During the days of Holy Week - Holy Tuesday, Holy Wednesday and Holy Thursday, Father O’Connell announced that there would be communal confession and a general absolution after mass. On Holy Thursday, I stayed after morning mass to be a part of the general absolution. It seemed to me this was an opportunity to clear the debit column on my character. They had a sign at the entrance that invited all prodigals to return to the church, no questions asked. Almost exactly the same sign they had at the supermarket about bringing back unsatisfactory food. The idea of erasing decades of mortal and venial sins with a sweep of the hand was irresistible. For once the Catholic Church had marketing smarts. I thought we would all stay in our pews remembering our sins or murmuring under our breath and then there would be a general absolution and we’d go home.
That was not how it happened. Father O’Connell leaned against a wall near the altar and to my surprise, a line formed. Each person walked up to him and recited what they had done in a soft voice. I certainly wasn’t going to recite a forty-year sin catalogue of adultery, hateful thoughts, hateful deeds, cheating, stealing, sloth, gluttony, indecent thoughts, murderous thoughts in front of that line of sincere parishioners. I prepared a little speech, as if I were going to receive a People’s Choice Award. Father, I’ve returned to church after a long absence and my most serious transgressions are the sins of criticism and judgment. As if he knew I was holding back a wheelbarrow full of worse sins, Father O’Connell responded like the prince of the church he was: I absolve you of each and every one of your sins. Go in peace and God bless you. He had already told us the penance: the penance I’m giving all of you, he had announced earlier, is to say: Lord, remember me. Like the good robber on the cross next to Jesus. I kept chanting, Lord, remember me, lord remember me, for the rest of the day. It was a good mantra. I left the church of St. Paul the Apostle more lighthearted than I’d felt in a long time. I like St. Paul, the Apostle. He was the one that gave up a complicated and sophisticated lifestyle to do God’s work. The other apostles just gave up fishing. I love the dramatic way Paul saw the light. It’s a way we all wish we could see the light. One big whoosh of understanding came upon him while he was walking on the road. It was so strong, it knocked him down. His teachings are often so comforting as to seem untrue. He wrote letters to entire communities like the Corinthians and told them that faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. What an idea!
Even though technically, I was supposed to repent, I felt no remorse about the adultery. If the man called today, I might still do whatever he said. It was an attraction that was outside the boundaries of common sense, decency or loyalty. It was the kind of “what in this world could keep me from experiencing this” attraction that went on in the movies. It would have been hypocritical to confess, father I committed adultery a long time ago and I’m deeply sorry. The lover had superseded my husband and could have been my husband had he not been distracted by success.
Responding to my wedding announcement the man had sent me a note congratulating me and saying, get this: it would be wonderful to get a glimpse of you. No one had ever said that to me before or since. Could we have lunch? He had put his private number in the letter. We met at the Café des Artistes, a sophisticated restaurant and bar near Columbus Circle. After three-hours of picking at our food but guzzling our wine, we stayed put long after the lunch hours were over. I visited the ladies room four times because of the wine. He too, left the table repeatedly. Because he was well known, the maitre d’ left us alone. When he went to the men’s room, two couples lingering at the next table asked me if it was really he and I said it was. I was wearing a fur bonnet that tied under my chin. That sounds excessive but it was just right for my face during those years. It made me look glamorous for the one and only season in my life. A big fur bonnet framing the eyes of someone with a high fever had a Dr. Zhivago kind of drama. I was dressed in a black wool gabardine suit with a short double-breasted jacket and an a-line skirt. I had bought the suit to look business-like and reliable for an appearance before the design board in the village where we were seeking a variance for our new home. Those Presbyterians would have been surprised to know the same suit was being used to unbalance a former lover. What a suit!
“What are you doing now?” he asked when the second bottle of wine was opened. “Recovering,” I said. I thought it was just a clever answer but that’s exactly what I was doing. Recovering from the shock of marriage. Recovering from twenty-three days in Tuscany with a moody stranger.
“I mean job wise? What are you working at?”
“I write ads for a department store chain.”
“Really? What kind of ads? You mean clothes? Tell me an ad you’ve written,” he said smiling.
“I just wrote an ad yesterday for very thick carpeting and the headline was, ‘your friends will think you’ve struck it rich’.” I had been ashamed of that headline but now it seemed the perfect thing to engage him. The wine and the occasion acted like a truth serum.
“That’s wonderful,” he said. “What else?”
“I write Z ads, too, that are very callously directed toward people who don’t have a lot of money.”
“Z ads? Tell me a Z ad.”
I was thrilled to tell this very cultured man every nuance of my hard sell copy and I knew it made me more precious in his eyes. “Just the coats you want for spring,” I said slowly and deliberately, as if reciting poetry. “Real wool, with generous balmacaan sleeves. On sale now. Just when you need them most.”
“Why do you say real wool? Is there fake wool?”
“There’s reprocessed wool. The buyer said so. And knowing him, it’s probably reprocessed wool.”
“Do people still buy Spring coats?” he asked.
“Older, ethnic people do.” I was memorizing the way his hair fell over his forehead in one silken swath. “ They wear them to church and also when they have to go to a luncheon. Maybe to play bridge.” I had no idea why people bought spring coats and where they wore them but I felt like a little facile information girl, with good facts streaming in to my brain like ticker tape. “Some people buy them as regular winter coats because they’re not so heavy when you drive a lot.”
This seemed all the information he wanted on Z ads and he stopped talking and looked at me. In the movies there are long close ups of people looking deeply at each other but in real life it’s hard to hold someone’s gaze. I thought he was going to ask me about my new husband and I would just have said, He’s at work. That’s how overwhelmed I was by this encounter. We held the gaze and after a while it became so intimate I could feel my body going limp. He asked for the check.
“You’re a Z ad whiz,” he said and I knew we were going to go to bed that day. Who would have guessed that a callous headline would result in my committing adultery? Now I believed the lesson I had heard that we never know the fragile threads that lead to our desires. In the cab to his apartment, we kissed repeatedly and then, just as we had done in the old days, when he was an ordinary man and not the celebrated man of letters, we melted into each other in an embrace that held all our wistfulness over how things had worked out for us.
I returned to my marriage apartment like a zombie. I knew that had he asked me to leave that day without a backward glance, I would have done so, but he had to go to California the next day to speak at an event.
I was doing freelance work at home and had a typewriter that I used pushed against a wall near one of the living room windows. I typed facing the wall all the next day. I typed ad copy for miniature-electroplated charms depicting the signs of the zodiac and summer vegetables. Choose all twelve signs, I wrote in the copy. Choose adorable miniature corn and carrots, celery and tomatoes, too. The perfect stocking stuffers and at this price, you will want them for everyone on your list. I wrote really well all day. I felt a new freedom that allowed the words to flow out and did a week’s work in a few hours. The psychiatrist who had his office one floor below came to my door and asked if I could type somewhere else because he could hear it in his office and it was disturbing his patient. He said he could hear every key go down. “Why do you type so hard?” he asked. His voice came from far away. Okay, I said, not knowing what I had agreed to. Fifteen minutes later he came up again and said he could still hear it.
“Hear what?” I asked.
“Hear the typing. Hear you typing very hard. Could you possibly move to another part of the apartment?”
“Of course.” I finally got it. But there was no place else to move so I stopped typing.
At one time, in popular song and literature, women expressed their love obsession by saying they “ached for his touch.” I wouldn’t have believed that was possible but it happened to me. I felt a complete ongoing ache that was almost paralyzing. It was as if my arms were configured in a phantom embrace and I was stuck in that yearning and nothing but the actual embrace could ease my limbs. Nothing as thrilling or interesting had happened before or since. We met several times over the next few months, once at Ruby Foos. Another time at the Four Seasons. He went away again for an extended work-related stay. By the time he returned, almost a year later, I had been carried by circumstances to an expensive suburb. I finally settled down and turned to the first page of The Joy of Cooking.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

#Sample Sunday "George Soros' Awesome Wednesday"

(Excerpt: 100 Open Houses)

This is the second snowfall in less than a week. I have to shovel the walk so the mailwoman doesn’t leave me a note that says. You have to shovel the walk or no mail. And then another note: Not shoveled enough. Make it wider. We used to consider the postman as a serious person who had some standing with the government. I’ve seen my mailwoman sitting on the curb eating a sandwich.
Sometimes, I don’t get mail for days and often, it’s for other people - same number, different street. The bookkeeper says they lost her mail for months and her truck was going to be repossessed because none of the payments got there. This morning, I’m making coffee and I hear a lot of noise at my door and I go out and it’s a kid in a ski parka stuffing mail into my box at 8 in the morning. I figure this kid has had my mis-delivered mail under his bed for a few days and his mother finally said, “Jason, you’d better deliver that mail.” There’s a sixty-five dollar rebate from my insurance company because they are experiencing larger than expected profits.
When I get to the office, Louise cannot stop talking but it’s comforting to hear a few pointless stories. Every time I walk away she says, “Wait’ll you hear this,” as if she’s going to tell me something fantastic. I have never heard anything fantastic in my life except when Mort Persky offered me a column in a women’s porn magazine because he had liked an article I had written for Ladies Home Journal. Go figure. I was the mother of three by that time and one on the way. “Mort,” I said, “I get undressed under my nightgown. I’m seven months pregnant. I spent fifteen years in Catholic school. Men to me are like bison, woolly, in a group, off in the distance.”
“That’s why I want you,” he answered.
Louise’s fantastic news is about people who are already dead and she hasn’t seen for ten years. It seems her friend Libby’s husband Frank (who had made millions) left Libby for a younger woman and when the kids refused to speak to him, changed his will and left everything to the new wife. Frank has a heart attack and the trophy wife of two years gets all the millions. The first wife dies soon after. The kids are orphans and poor and the new millionaire wife is loaded. Ok. That is fantastic!
Louise’s stories make me wonder how my life would sound in ten sentences or less. When you depersonalize, the facts smack you. I’m five foot three with short curly hair made a nice chestnut brown by L’Oreal’s Chestnut Brown. My face looks okay in the mirror but when I see it in photographs it looks like no one I know. And also someone who isn’t that smart. My eyes look big but in a startled way and my former lovely petite nose has broadened a little. There’s too much face (which could be taken care of by shedding some pounds). My lips are good, still smooth, My chest and neck don’t have any wrinkles and those lines that slant from the outer corners of your lips to your chin (plastic surgeons call them marionette lines just in case you didn’t feel like Howdy Doody.) can still be erased with concealer. I have two worry wrinkles between my brows. For unknown reasons, I don’t have any other wrinkles. I used to think it was my olive complexion that saved me, but my mother has very white opaque skin and she doesn’t have any wrinkles either. My looks are always changing. At times I think I look very pretty in a romantic way, like a heroine. It’s possible.
When I get to my desk I realize that I have to start cold calling every corporation in America and ask them if they want to shell out $100,000 to have their banner hung in a tent for several days. I start with the big communications conglomerates. After two hours of cold calls and many messages left on voicemails, I take a breather and peruse my stock portfolio and read the stock message boards.
On the WENG message board, a writer identified as StockBaby has posted these words: “I be buying this stock for 3.25 and now it.1.30. What to do?” “Kill yourself you idiot,” answers Two-bit-Proctology, “and I know you aren’t StockBaby but the same ass-licking liar who calls himself the Real-Bo-Diddly.” The profanity filter is off. Jugrnut, has taken a higher road. “I want justice served but first give me my faaking money back you corrupted swift operators! You are unethical in my book.“
I came upon WENG by chance on the KMGI message board and I have made a little money. I haven’t taken a profit because I don’t know how to take a profit. I only know how to watch things that were once up go down in a scary way.
All I know about WENG is that it offers storage. (not like a locker at the train station) the kind of storage that is needed now on the Internet. No, I don’t know what I’m talking about. My investment style is casual and has resulted in medium-size wins and some painful losses. One of the things I’ve learned through the years is that you’re either imitating your mother or your father. After he retired, my father used to sit in his broker’s office and watch the ticker tape. He had stocks and bonds and never sold any of them. He died a wealthy man. I’m definitely not imitating my father. I put in a buy order for 5,000 shares of WENG at $1.25 and log off.
I’m smart enough to know that I am playing against the “big boys” whoever they are.
I do know George Soros is a “big boy.” George Soros “broke the bank of England” in 1992 when he bet massively against the English pound and ended up making one billion, that’s b as in billion, on what is now known in England as “Black Wednesday” and what is known in George Soros’ house as Awesome Wednesday. Currency trading and fooling around with futures (except my own) is beyond my comfort level.
I pick up the phone again and call Nextel to ask someone in charge if they would like to sponsor the most respected film festival on the East Coast. An operator who probably just started and still has some enthusiasm for the job actually gives me the person I need. It’s a woman and she says, “Yes, we’re interested. I’m glad you called.” After I pick myself up off the floor, I begin my spiel. “Your brand at a respected cultural event in one of the world’s most desirable destinations. I don’t have to tell you that visibility in the Hamptons is over the top. 18,000 pairs of eyes, that’s 36,000 eyeballs with a Hamptons income fixated on your brand. We’ll give you saturation visibility. Saturation from Montauk to Quogue!
It’s ironic. I am the least likely person to talk about all this materialistic stuff. I cannot buy things comfortably. I can give money away and I can certainly lose money trading stocks, but I find it difficult to go into a store and look around and then buy something. I’m likely to return most things.
I promise the Nextel woman to send her a proposal immediately by e-mail. For the next two hours, I prepare a detailed and persuasive document to convince this phone giant that if they do exactly as I say, they will be astounded and amazed. I feel so elated that I’ve actually interested a possible sponsor; I decide to do something that God would like and call my mother who is in a nursing home in Manhattan.
“They sold my floor.” She says in greeting. “They’ll probably throw all of us out.”
“Are you sure? They can’t just sell your floor.”
“Rich people can do anything they want, my dear.”
I have heard this story before and decide to try another tactic. It’s her lunchtime. “How is the lunch?” I ask.
“I would like to see a piece of meat. And now my bed’s too low and I don’t know how to make it higher. None of the girls here know what I’m talking about.”
“You must feel very frustrated,” I offer.
“Yes. Frustrated.” She’s satisfied that I have found a word for her that expresses her feelings. Even though she still recognizes me and seems happy to see me, we rarely talk about our shared past. The visit is taken up by her latest campaign - they’ve sold her floor and they’re going to move her out. Or, they won’t put the lights on and everyone is up in arms. Suppose she’s right? Suppose they have sold her floor and the minute the visitors leave, the staff, for amusement, turns off all the lights and the old and infirm are left to fend for themselves in the dark?

Detached from the outcome.

Today I experienced a life lesson so valuable, I have to share. The insurance adjuster was coming to add up the damage from Irene. I had already been told that my biggest loss, a beautiful weeping cherry tree that bloomed every spring was not covered. “We don’t pay for trees,” they said. Let’s face it when insurance is involved we don’t just want to cover our loss, we want something extra.
In subsequent days I had the following thoughts: I’m not going to make my deductible and then I won’t get any money but my rates will still go up. The adjuster will find some awful thing wrong with the house that has nothing to do with Irene and they will drop me and I won’t get any money and also have no insurer and no weeping cherry tree. If I drop the claim and pay for the repairs myself, I will avoid both of the above.
I didn’t think these thoughts just once. In my adorable pathological way I thought all those thoughts several times a day. I called the catastrophe center (yes, that is what they called it) and told the man who answered that I was going to drop the claim. The man implored me not to do it. He looked over the damage listed and said “You’d be surprised how all of this adds up. Let the adjuster come.”

I was told to make a list of all the food I lost because of the power outage and it was an incriminating dossier on my eating habits: I eat enough cheese, butter, sour cream, Stouffer’s frozen lasagna, ice cream to put away The Hulk. Maybe Irene was my wake-up call to get off the highway of clogged arteries and onto the moving sidewalk of green leafy vegetables.

The night before the adjuster’s visit, I matured emotionally about twenty years and had this thought: Why don’t you let go of the whole incident and let what happens happen. Instead of orchestrating what might happen, let go and be satisfied with the outcome, whatever it is. This was so simple a solution, I almost fell down because I finally relaxed all of my muscles. In the morning, I made my bed, cleaned the bathroom, straightened up the kitchen, took a shower and went to do some work at my computer.

When the adjuster arrived, I offered him water and use of the bathroom. He accepted both gratefully. After that, I left him alone to do whatever he had to do and did my work. He was gone for about forty-five minutes. I was so detached from the outcome, I didn’t even ask any questions when he came to say good-bye. He told me I would hear from him in a few days and added this: “I think you’ll be happy you didn’t withdraw the claim.” I have no idea what that means but it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I learned something I can use. If you detach from the outcome, life sorts itself out in the best possible way.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Stop it, Michelle!

I was on line at the supermarket and the front page of The Globe froze me in place. Michelle’s Insults Drive Hillary to Collapse. My inner fourteen year old yanked me out of line: We’re not moving until we get to the bottom of this.
I happen to love and admire Hillary Clinton. She is a smart, smart woman. She is an accomplished seamless speaker. She is a loving mother and a loyal spouse. She has withstood public humiliation and hideous attacks from the media without whining. I’m not only thinking of the Lewinsky fiasco. How about the barrage of mean and ugly references during her run for the Presidency. “Now she’s pimping Chelsea” was one of the endearing remarks. Hillary seems to be the hardest working employee the government has ever had and yet there is no decency wall when it comes to making fun of her.

I don’t know exactly what Hillary does. My vague idea is that she goes from country to country and says things like, “Stop killing your own citizens.” or “Stop taking all of our foreign aid money and stashing it in Swiss banks for your own retirement.” or “Stop gathering material for nuclear bombs because then you’ll be able to bomb us or our allies and we don’t like that especially since we give you a lot of cash and look the other way when you steal it.” Publicly she’s always either boarding a plane or getting off. She is either sitting in those stiff antique Morris chairs with a head of state or being greeted at the airport by a head of state. It is not a glamorous job. It is the dirty work of politics and she does it without complaint. She doesn’t insinuate herself into Obama’s inner sanctum (at least publicly). She has served the president better than anyone else in his Cabinet.

So why then is Michelle, goddess of all things serene and classy, driving my Hillary to “an alarming secret breakdown?” Stop it, Michelle!

It’s Hillary’s weight. Yes, you heard me, her weight. The article alleges that Hillary has packed on fifty pounds. Why do they say “packed on” as if you are troweling plaster onto a wall. The Globe goes on to say that Hillary has packed on weight because she is so unhappy. If this is true maybe it’s because her inner clock is all fackakta due to the traveling. Hillary is totally messing with Michelle’s “anti obesity” message. Remember Lady Bird who had her “beautification” project? Michelle has her own beautification project and it has to do with slimming everybody down and Hillary is throwing a wrench into it by packing on “unhappiness” weight.
What is worse, The Globe, alleges Bill is getting on Hillary about her weight, too. He wants her to slim down and run again because he wants back in at the White House.

If you believe the Globe both Michelle and Bill want Hillary to slim down to move their own agenda along. It has nothing to do with Hillary’s welfare. My message to Hillary is: quit that thankless job unless the perks are fantabulous. You are dealing with crazy foreign heads of state that look all warm and fuzzy in the antique Morris chair but only want your money.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Swagger. What is it? Do I want it?

This is as good a time as any to talk about swagger. Women usually don’t have anywhere near enough of it before or after sixty. Roughly interpreted, swagger means a certain slightly teen-agey confidence that you have an edge over the rest of the population or at least all the people you know. I’ve experienced swagger several times in my life. The day that stands out most is when a famous newspaper editor offered me a column in a big city daily. This is what I was thinking: I'm going to be a stylesetter and adorable, too. Everybody will love me and invite me over. I am freaking awesome and brilliant. I remember walking to his office and I could swear my feet were not touching the ground. I felt I owned that city. Two weeks later the editor was fired. I’ve had enough humiliation to have a huge dose of the anti-swagger. There’s nothing that can take the swagger out of you faster than a no-show at a dinner party. Only thing worse is a no-show on a date and worse than that is a no-show of one of the principals at their wedding.

As a newly married young woman I met a cousin of President Roosevelt and since she seemed to take a liking to me and lived in the neighborhood, I asked her to dinner. In some recess of my social climbing bloated mind, I’m sure I was thinking – I am so freaking interesting and special I’ve attracted a relative of the best president and she’s going to be my best friend and possibly give me some of her money, too. I planned dinner with care and set the table with all the best stuff I had at the time, Dansk this and Dansk that. I bought candles although candles were not as important then as they are now and we only used the tall skinny ones. We waited and waited but Mrs. Roosevelt never showed up. No call. Nothing. That’s what is wrong with trying to know important people. They can just not show up and there’s nothing you can do about it. It took me down about 12 notches although I did get flowers delivered a few days later. The tech bubble fiasco took another chunk of swagger out of me along with Mrs. Roosevelt standing me up. The recent minor financial successes that I am having mean very little when I think of the glory days.

I thought all this swagger loss had taught me a lesson but it has not. I’m still waiting for the real fun to miraculously reappear. The other day a magazine named Fast Company contacted me and asked if I would participate in one of their articles. I had never heard of Fast Company but when I looked them up the current issue had Matt Damon on the cover. They sent a photographer and an assistant to photograph me. I don’t know in what alternate universe this magazine found me and decided I would enhance their content but it definitely qualified as a “drag out the swagger” opp. I could not find it. The swagger was gone and I think for good. I just prayed to God my picture would not be too bad and that the outfit I chose would look good. Gratitude for "just nothing bad, please" has smothered my swagger.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Softgoods (Chapter One)

In the retail world, some goods sold are considered hard (furniture, appliances, linens, etc.) and some are softgoods: among them are all of the fun and fabulous things that women are dying to have because wearing them makes them feel so very good.


It's early morning. No sun. A gritty midtown side street in New York City’s garment district. Truck drivers maneuver to connect with gates and loading docks to disgorge finished garments. The drivers are grubby and cranky.
A rack of Marc Jacobs Crayola yellow silk jersey tank tops with matching lace and taffeta skirts roll down to an unloader. A rack of white organza Armani trenchcoats follow. A rack of lime Chanel suits also follow. A trucker jockeys a twenty-four foot truck into the last empty gate. A guard waves him away.
“This gate’s spoken for,” says the guard.
“Where am I supposed to dump?” asks the trucker
“Not here. Move it.” There’s a shotgun by his side and he makes it visible.
“This for you,” says the trucker. He gives him the finger and then turns the finger sideways. “And this for your horse.”
The trucker continues backing up to the gate but doesn’t unload. He’s there to distract attention from another event.
Fulgencio Coto, a driver for Witter Trucking has arrived ten minutes late. The spot he pays the guard to save is gone. He’ll have to unload with hand-trucks. Shit! Fulgencio gets out and goes to chew out the guard. He’s late because his pregnant wife was in labor. He needs to finish up and get home.
It’s after eight and the street is getting crowded. Elevator starters and janitors arrive. Street people skulk toward Penn Station. In the seconds Fulgencio’s truck is out of view a well-dressed dandy, Zander, slides into the passenger seat. He has on a full rubber mask of Humphrey Bogart topped by a wide brimmed Panama hat.
Fulgencio re-enters his cab. Distracted, he goes to put it in gear. He sees his bizarre guest and the 45 nudging his right kidney and reacts with surprise and fear.
“Drive out through the Lincoln Tunnel. Look straight ahead,” says Zander.
Fulgencio turns to his passenger and gets a smart crack to his head. “Okay, man, I don’t look.”
They drive through narrow cross-town streets, through the Tunnel, along the Jersey Palisades onto the New Jersey Turnpike. At an isolated spot along the marshlands, Zander puts a hand on Fulgencio’s arm. “Pull over, hand me your wallet and get out.”
Fulgencio complies and stands by the side of the road.
“You don’t move for six hours.” says Zander. He looks at his watch and then down at Fulgencio. “My mother told me the morning belongs to the angels. I don’t kill anybody before twelve o’clock.” He waves the wallet. “But I know where you live.”
After a mile of driving, Zander takes off his hat and pulls off the mask to reveal an olive skinned man in his early thirties. He continues driving the Ryder 24 footer until he reaches a stretch of the Washington Beltway. A sign says: WELCOME TO THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA. It is barely noon and he has already easily accomplished the deed. He has a truckload of high-end goodies and his willing accomplice Sheila will help him unload them to the eager soccer moms of the nation’s capital.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Is my default setting fear?

On Wednesday morning as I swung my feet over the edge of the bed to get up, I had this thought: You don’t have to act out your mom and dad’s playbook. You are not Fred and you are not Blanche. You are Consuelo. You have your own authentic impetus and that impetus is untainted by the desire to show love for your parents by imitating their behavior.

My father was born in Ramallah, the only Christian village in Palestine located ten miles north of Jerusalem. In those years, the Turks ruled the area from Constantinople. When World War I began, the Turkish army took over the village. He had to leave his home with his family, travel across the Jordan River and wait out the war in a convent where his aunt was a nun. When I say he had to travel across the Jordan, I don’t mean by a boat. They strapped all of their possessions on donkeys and crossed the river on foot. The currents were strong and some of their stuff got lost and he became temporarily separated from his family. Maybe he lost his favorite whistle or wooden soldier in the water,I don't know, but those early experiences left him an emotional cripple. As an adult he joined his jovial brother, Charles, in Washington D.C. and became a very wealthy man but always chose to live in a contracted way. He stuck close to his home, never learned to drive, spoke little and swept his own store (my father and uncle owned the boutique department store, Jean Matou, in Washington D.C.) As I’ve written before, my father once refused to take Bess Truman’s check. When Mrs. Truman said, “But Mr. Saah, I live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” my father replied, “I don’t care where you live, we don’t take checks.” My Uncle Charlie, the emotional opposite of his brother, had to take him aside and knock some sense into him.

My father hid behind a quiet, modest life so no one would approach him and ask for anything. His money did not enhance his life; he used it as a protective wall. What he gave up was emotional engagement. What he also gave up was self-celebration. What he gave up was elation and joy.

My mother, although born into near poverty, thought she was a princess because her long gone father was a Frenchman and her skin was so white (in a family of olive skinned siblings) they named her Blanca. I never lived with my mother but from time to time, she would show up and look me over to see if there was any way I could enhance her life. The only time I was near my mother was when we traveled by bus from Mexico to Washington, D.C. where she deposited me with my father and five uncles. I remember that trip. I remember how my mother took care of herself, applying and re-applying lipstick throughout the day.

On this morning in early September, I created a clear and concise message to my subconscious. I spoke to that point of consciousness that engenders all action. Rules to live by: Going forward from this nanosecond, I cast off the need to be afraid of engagement (fear was Dad’s default setting); and the need (though beautifully masked) to act out of false pride (treat me like a queen or go away was Mom’s default setting). I’m free to act from my own fresh point of view.

Yeah, right!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Haven't blogged in a while - this is why.

This looks more dramatic than it was: Most severe damage was to a weeping cherry tree, moderate damage to the roof, gutters, soffit and part of vestibule glass wall. I have water and gas piped in from the street for cooking and heating and was able to bathe and cook during the power outage. Got a lot of odd cleaning done: silverware drawer, dresser top, linen closet, refrigerator. Also gathered the tsunami of leaves and branches over my entire yard. Met many of my neighbors for the first time (nice.)

At night, went to bed at 8:30 and listened to talk radio (crazy, crazy). Read my kindle and ate very little (this was the best outcome). All in all, got away scott free given the horrid stories from other areas.

Thanks everyone for your good wishes and concern.

How I Learned to Talk: A blog in two parts. (Redux)

This week-end I attended an event and went on a hideous talking spree cramming six months of talking into 2-1/2 hours. I broke all of my talking rules and and went home with a talker's hangover, talker's remorse, talker’s “aftermath enlightment” (this is where your psyche serves up soul crushing insights about your need to be liked.) When I fessed up on Twitter and Facebook, there were so many "me too" responses I decided to repost my two blogs about talking.

Part One:
Meredith F. Small, an anthropologist, says our “social intelligence” is what has made humans such a successful species." We recognize and keep track of hundreds of relationships, and we easily distinguish between enemies and friends.” We run our lives by social calculation and most of it revolves around talking.
I used to think talking was just opening your mouth and letting sounds come out. There are unintended consequences to this type of lazy talking and now I take it seriously. I found that I had to segregate the things I talk about with different people.

Here are a couple of examples: My friend Meg validates that I am a regular person because I act and talk regular around her. I have my Meg package: I can talk about trouble but I keep it light. I park the irony at the door.

The only things I can say to Hannah are: Do you have a good plumber? or How is your new “on demand” water heater working? I stopped telling Hannah anything when I realized that her reaction was going to be out of all proportion to what I was telling her. If I said I got some freelance work she would scream (yes, scream) what? What kind of work? And then pepper me with about fifty questions that I didn’t have the answer to and then question my decision.

I try not to tell my children anything about my life that doesn’t end with: “it’s great.”

It’s easier to wrap your mind around talking that works if you separate it into five main categories:

Pleasantries: (best kept to a sentence or two) Nice day. Nice lawn. How's the wife. Cute kid. If you go beyond the second sentence, you will be embroiled in a pointless conversation that will be hard to end.

Informational talk: “Mrs. McNaughton you'd better sit down for this. We hear seven distinct heartbeats.” When you are receiving information, don’t be tempted to interject irony or humor or even sarcasm. Just say, “I see.”

Self-serving talk. “I had no knowledge of any dummy corporations being set up at Enron to divert money.” Don’t refute the speaker even if what he/she is saying is blatantly false. If it is something that alters your finances, just take it to a lawyer.

Inquisitorial talk: “Jeffrey, what do you mean when you say you like to cut up people?” If there’s nothing else you learn about talking, learn to answer what is asked with no elaboration. If someone asks, “Did you eat the last piece of pie?” a yes or no will suffice.

Confidential talk: If you are hell bent on confiding, become a Catholic and go to confession or talk to your mirror. This will spare you confessional remorse.

How I learned to Talk, Part Two

Part One addressed the pitfalls of lazy talking. Part Two will itemize some helpful rules to point you in a good direction.

Rule One: Knowing when to be silent. The upper hand can be had in any encounter if you wait to the count of ten before answering a question. The other person will become nervous and begin chattering at about number six. My middle child hardly ever answered a question and I was afraid of him. Occasionally, when I realized I was his mother, I became indignant. If you can master the “count to ten” response, it never disappoints.

Rule Two: Adapt your language for the recipient: My neighbor is a retired schoolteacher named Margaret. Her husband is named Tom. Margaret and Tom Smith. How do you talk to a solid English teacher like Margaret Smith? Be conscious of words and syntax . Thankfully, I just read a book titled “Woe is I” and finally know when to use “which” and when to use “that”. In case you want to know: “what” is used when it’s important; “which” is used for extraneous clauses that you could leave out. With Margaret Smith, I drag out words like “impervious” and “obsequious” and guess what? She wants me to come over and see her new compost bin. She says, “Just walk right in.” I’m telling you, it’s the “impervious” that invites that kind of hospitality.

Rule Three: Preparation. You can do this in front of a mirror or in your head. Before I go to a dinner party, I plan some conversational sequence meant to entertain. My hosts are feeding me carefully prepared, expensive food. I have a responsibility to contribute to the ambiance. When I was going to meet a very modest Englishman who held a high position in the British government, I prepared
the following opening remark: “If you were a Sheridan play, it would be called “A modest man of great importance.” He walked away with a bemused grin but I caught him looking at me later.

Rule Four: The third party effect: When I used to change my infant grandson and knew he might choose that moment to relieve himself, I always said: “Don’t taze me bro,” a phrase I borrowed from a videotaped police confrontation on the evening news. The baby didn’t care what I say, but I knew it would make his father smile and that’s always rewarding.

Rule Five: Squelch anything colorful at the bank and at the hospital:
When you’re asking for a loan and the nameplate on the desk says, Ms. Du Bois, don’t blurt out Blanche DuBois’ famous line in Streetcar Named Desire, “I have to depend on the kindness of strangers.” Say: “It’s so hot outside but very pleasant in here.” And the loan officer will say: ”How much of a loan did you want?”

Rule Six:. You can use sarcasm and irony to test the acuity of someone you are vetting for a job or marriage or power of attorney. These verbal skills are part of our human toolbox and we are wired to respond to them. Dr. Margaret Rankin, a neuropsychologist, goes further to legitimize sarcasm. If you don’t recognize it, it’s because of some damage to your parahippocampal gyrus which is located in the right brain.. People with dementia, or head injuries in that area, often lose the ability to pick up on sarcasm. This is known as the Forest Gump response. No, it’s not, I’m just kidding.

The sixth rule of talking (and this is the last but most important rule): Let’s take all of the talk content you will have in life. You have a chunk of information, a chunk of ideas, a chunk of whining, and a chunk of aimless non-consecutive thoughts to divide between your family and friends and whomever crosses your path. To avoid senseless time wasting maneuvers like back pedaling, apologizing, rifts and perhaps murder, you tell some people some things and you tell others other things. Be vigilant and don’t falter.