Advice: Irresistable To Give, Impossible To Take


One day a while ago I was on the phone with a good friend.  She had just finished catching me up on all the things that were going wrong in her life. And you know what I said?  I said, “Tomorrow is another day.”  My friend laughed.  “Another one like today?” she said.  “Anything else good you can tell me?  In that case, clear the way to the cliff, I’m gonna jump!”

Then we spent the next fifteen minutes laughing about all the little bits of useless advice people give one another, that fog up our psychic lenses. We’ve all gotten advice like that, and we all give it, from time to time.

Imagine this: You’re having a run of bad luck.  Your ankle breaks. Your investments tank.  Your colonoscopy is next week.  The post office has been delivering your bills to the wrong address and your good credit is about to go bad. And then someone tells you to have a positive attitude, or some variation of it, like “look at the glass half full,”  “cheer up,”  “look on the bright side,” and the ever-popular “things could get worse” –to which I always want to say, “really, like HOW?”

You are late for an appointment and you can’t find the car keys.  Your wallet is missing. You make a last minute pit stop in the bathroom and the flapper thingie unhinges and it won’t flush.  Then the phone rings, you let the machine answer and it turns out to be the call you have been waiting for for weeks, but by the time you grab the receiver, the speaker has just finished saying he is going on a four week vacation (you can hear the boarding call in the background) and won’t be available until next month and hangs up. And what does someone — usually someone who really cares, who is in the general vicinity of your ongoing disaster — say to you?  “Relax,” of course.  “Take it easy.”  “Calm down.” Or the new favorite, “Breathe.”

Oh, I know, don’t bother telling me. We all mean well.  We just aren’t thinking.  Because, really, what good does it do to tell you to take it easy when you are in the middle of taking it hard?  Isn’t it evident that if you could take it easy, you would?  I don’t know about you, but hearing “it’s okay” when I know clearly it is very much NOT okay only makes me feel worse. Actually, it makes me so mad I want to chew a rug.

My mother’s two favorites, as I was growing up, was, “Wash your hands and face, you’ll feel better,” and “Don’t you care,” the latter of which always made me grind my teeth and say, “But I DO care!”

” Let a smile be your umbrella?” Yeah, try it, in the rain.

I guess my own favorite bit of advice is something I hear all the time:  “Have a sense of humor,” which is kind of like saying to someone, “Be tall.”

I guess if I had more of a sense of humor, I would laugh the whole advice thing off.  But then again, if I had less of a sense of humor, I wouldn’t have been able to write this.

Any favorite pieces of useless advice you’d like to share?


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I open the freezer and half a dozen things tumble out.  Among them is a large package, well-wrapped, like a sarcophagus actually, in layers of waxpaper, plastic, tin foil, tape.  I’m impressed by the wrapping.  But I cannot remember what is in there.  I unwrap it, but I still can’t tell.  All I know is it probably isn’t broccoli.  It is grayish-white, and shaped like a long loaf which was attacked by a runaway handsaw. Or a truncated alligator snout. Or cod.  I am tempted to throw it out, but then I remember when I used to hide my jewelry in the freezer, and I decide to defrost it first, and when it regains its identity, I’ll make an executive decision.   While I wait, I re-stuff the freezer, and contemplate the nature of my madness:  I hate to throw things away.

There are boxes in my garage, that hold broken – but not much/ very /too broken– appliances.  If they were really broken, I tell myself, if they were really really broken, or smashed up, I’d take them out to the curb.  I would.  But this sweet, neat, pink, almost-new ice cream maker (with only the dasher missing from the company that went out of business so can’t replace the dasher)? How can I?  Or a perfectly good half set of cutlery, or crockery?  Why penalize the half that’s here by throwing it out? And there are baskets just five straws short of perfection, and a juicer whose fault it is not that I no longer juice, and a meat grinder ditto, and one espresso machine too many, and a former zester which has been replaced by a sharper model, which do not deserve to die.  Should three turkey basters, bought at various Thanksgivings between which I thought I needed a turkey baster have to suck up the blame for my mistake? Or a baby’s stepstool of lovely maple be sacrificed just because the babies are grown?

And in the closets: the almost- new jacket with the huge shoulder pads, the leather trousers which will never make their way past my hips, the Brooks Brothers jacket in the strange green color which I bought on sale (probably because of the strange green color) but which M has never worn because of the strange green color? Do they deserve to go?

You can call me a hoarder, but I prefer to think of it as having a soft spot for my things.  And hating the idea of waste.  And not liking change of any kind.  When we had a giant but dying oak tree cut down in our yard, I had the tree men cut me two slices of trunk which I planned to have M finish into trays or a table.  The oak tree is gone five years now and they still lean, like huge cookies, against the unused treadmill.   M has not found the time but it could still happen.  (Well, not to the one slice of trunk which has curled slightly into the possibility of a cradle, which, you never know, do you, whether I might need?)

But I will admit that if push (the physics of space) comes to shove (M’s insistence) — and aside from the contents of my freezer — it sounds like there’s a yard sale in my future.  And if the freezer contents turn out to be jewels, an e-bay offering, too.

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City Mouse in the Country


Is hogweed a giant kind of Queen Anne’s Lace? One is poison, the other pretty but they look exactly the same.

Do you blow a whistle when you see a bear?  Or do you sing? There are two schools of thought.

Is that a baby deer straight ahead or a big dog?

Are all my optical delusions — grasshopper looks like twig (till it hops off); stick looks like a snake but it’s dead wood; flat gray stone is a mouse, roadkilled – because I am in the wrong cultural context?  Do my country friends get it like I get the smell of summer pavement or the rhythm of a subway train?

Listen, I love it but I’m not of it.

For example: someone pulled our clothesline with such force that it almost tore the frame around our garage window out.  If we still lived in Queens, we would know it was the boys around the corner who hung out too late and were parentally unsupervised, but here in Woodstock we think it was probably the bear.

(The night before someone pulled the clothesline out, we were awakened by a skunk smell so strong and so evil that even after we closed the windows it permeated one whole half of the house, and I ended up sleeping with my head under the covers and half a lemon jammed up against my nose.  It reminded me of the aroma of jet fuel perfuming the Queens night air when JFK was busy and we were in the flight pattern.)

So life hasn’t changed all that much, M would say.

I say yes and no.

On the road to the market – one cannot walk anywhere to get bread in these parts — a remarkably beautiful red bird, the likes of which I had never seen before, flew too low in front of my car, smacking into my windshield, before it wheeled and reeled into to the bushes on the other side of me. Instantly I recalled another time, on Kissena Boulevard in Queens, when one kid chasing another dashed out in front of my car and bounced off the hood, landing on the street, miraculously unhurt.  If I had not been going slowly or hit the brakes quickly, who knows what would have happened? Both times the feeling of fright stayed with me all day.  So I guess yes.

When I taught night classes at Queens College, my biggest worry was getting home and not finding a place to park.  Sometimes I circled for half an hour, looking for a spot.  Sometimes I would have to walk long blocks in the dark, spooked by the echo of my own steps, trying not to think about rumors of a mugger in the area. Sometimes I parked near a hydrant or across someone’s driveway, and set my clock for 5:30 a.m., so I could run out in my pajamas and move the car.  Here, when I taught at night, I knew I could pull right into my own driveway into my own garage. BUT there are no street lights on the narrow country road that took me home and believe me, you don’t know what dark is until you’ve driven a country road at night. I learned to use my high beams but that didn’t solve the problem of the deer.  When we first moved here, a helpful neighbor promised it was only a matter of time before we had a car-deer encounter.   Everybody did. So teaching at night retained its tang of tension.  Yes again.

But the bears, let’s not forget the bears.  Mostly it’s just a pulled clothesline or our garbage cans knocked down and trash strewn all over that tells us there’s a bear in the neighborhood.  (In Queens, when garbage is strewn it is more likely that the sanitation men got sloppy.) So, you walk the dog nervously for a day or two until you relax and forget about it.  It’s an upstate thing.  Here, people say things like, “They’re more scared of you than you are of them,” and “Just sing to let him know you don’t threaten him.”

I’ve got my song ready, but then the other day I looked out my kitchen window, and there, right next to the outdoor grill, was a bear.  Big.  Black. Looking like…a bear.  He lumbered around the side of the house and down my driveway, sort of hunched over, looking a little depressed.  Or hungry. So all bets were off.  For a full 24 hours, I worried.   But then, you know?  I just thought, “He’s probably more scared of me than I am of him.”  He did look a little depressed.   And just like the mugger in the city, he became a rumor again, to defy, to disbelieve, to dare.

Certainly, it’s quieter upstate. No more whoosh of traffic all night from the nearby Long Island Expressway.  But have you ever been kept awake by the hooting of one predator or another?  Is it an owl or a coyote?  Was that a hoot or a howl?  And are you sure those four-footed creatures can’t open the front door?  Well, I’ll just get up and double lock it  in case.   And while it is true that common apartment walls, which carried the sounds of a neighbor’s heartbreak or lust or taste in music are no longer part of my life, the house through the trees was someone’s recording studio, and while I was trying to read and write someone was laying down a drum track. And no wall to bang on.

I will always be a city girl.  I missed walking for a purpose and not just an exercise.  (Twenty blocks in midtown to get to Bloomingdales is just as good as a mile in the country. Oh, another tree?)  But now I’ve got a dog, and that’s a purpose, too. And being surrounded by the beauty of nature gives one another perspective.  The view driving home from anywhere calms me.  (Or when there’s a bear involved, excites me.)  So, I guess you could say life has changed utterly, and not at all.

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A Coach By Any Other Name


Do you remember when the word “coach” meant someone who directed a football team? Now, there are coaches for just about everything under the sun. It amazes me how a change of language has revitalized the old concept of help-me-help-myself.

In the past, when people needed help, they would turn to a friend or relative for advice or encouragement.  Or, maybe they’d read a book or go to a class, or hire a tutor, or visit a therapist. Then, someone applied the sports term “coach” to all these disparate activities and it wrapped the whole help-me-help-myself thing into one neat package, and lo and behold, a new field of endeavor was born.  “Coach.”  Doesn’t it have an appealing sound, with its undertone of fair play, and its implication that life is a game?  And as the word appealed, the concept caught on, and now, the world is well stocked with life coaches, career coaches, marriage and divorce coaches, investment coaches, exercise coaches, diet coaches, sex coaches and debt-clearing coaches, to name a few.

In the past when we needed help in the care and raising of our kids the job went to a meddling grandparent or the babysitter.  Now, advice and childcare are wrapped in the term ” parenting coach” which elevated it to a profession. (This costs the parents a lot more, which, in turn, may assuage any guilt they have about going off to work and leaving the kids to caregivers other than themselves.) See what language can do?

But as the word became more and more familiar, and finally stale, the concept got stretched thinner, too.  Recently, I have noticed that along with all these life coaches, there is a growing number of coaches who offer services in trivial matters, for things that, well, frankly, people ought to be able to figure out for themselves.  There are clean-out your office coaches and organize sock drawer coaches and I even heard somewhere that there is a color coach who, for a fee, will tell you what colors you look best in. I just heard that parents are hiring “coaches” to help their children improve their scores on an internet game.  Can coffee brewing coaches be far behind?

Is the word becoming played out?  Is the concept?  Is it time for something new?

I could probably hire a coach to help me answer that question, but I’ll try to do it on my own.  I dedicate myself (for the next few minutes) to the weighty task of finding the next blockbuster phrase that will enliven the concept of help-me-help-myself and maybe start a whole new industry.  As “do it yourself” gave way to “self help” and “committee leader” gave way to “facilitator,” there is a future phrase ready to take the place of the played-out “coach.”  What about “advocate?”  Too lawyerly, yes. “Supporter?”  Well, too much like a bra or a truss.  “Mentor” might work, with its nice, settled, academic tone, though it doesn’t have the right tone of encouragement, does it?  What about “pathfinder,” with it’s sense of adventure and new horizons?   Pathfinders, Incorporated. B. A.Moskowitz, Career Pathfinder.  Sexual Pathfinder.  Parenting Pathfinder.  Yes, that might work.  Or is there something better out there, on the next page of the thesaurus?  What do you think?  Any ideas?

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Mentors for Hard Times


I knew a woman who had had cancer many years ago, and then, many years later, it came back, just when she was starting a new life in a new marriage.  Her reaction was singular and dramatically un-dramatic: she said she wasn’t going to see it as a tragedy. She was mainly annoyed that cancer had interrupted her good time.  She said she was determined not to let it rule her life.  She intended to keep on doing all the things she had been doing before the cancer came back.    She believed if she didn’t, she would begin dying that much sooner.  She said she refused to live for her cancer; she had too many other things to live for.  And she lived for a long time, going gamely from one protocol to another. No matter what treatment regimen she was on, hard or soft, she kept on quilting, going out to dinner, reading interesting books, taking a ride out to the beach to watch the waves.   I told her once that I was watching her and willing myself to remember everything she was doing, because if I ever got cancer, I would want to face it the way she did.

Thinking of that reminded me of a friend who lost his wife when his son was just a year old.  He raised the boy alone for the first ten years, and then found a wonderful woman, they began their life together, and then she died, too.  This guy has gone through loss and grief in a very human way:  angry, depressed, swearing there was nothing left to live for, and each time, managing to scrape together enough hope to start living again.  The way he has found the strength to renew hope against all odds, comforts me.

Several people in my life have been widowed in recent years.  Each one has responded differently.  One began travelling and filling her life with cultural events until she could stand the quiet of a Sunday afternoon home alone without her husband.  Another stayed close to home, shaky about travelling out of sight of her front porch until she found the balance to walk about in the world without her husband by her side.  Some went to support groups.  Some went it alone.  One married within six months of her husband’s death.  But they all, in their own ways, worked hard at re-kindling their pleasure in everyday life.  I watch them succeed and it brings me cheer.

Getting old in itself, without disease or widowhood to complicate it, is no joke.  The slowing down, the inevitable failure of this or that, here a knee, there a hip, whether subtle or steep, is a given. There, too, I have had great models.  My friend, Thelma, will be ninety-eight on her next birthday.  She has had her share of problems, but if you ask her how she is doing, her comment is always the same:  “Listen, honey, if that’s the worst…”  No matter how bad it is, she’s got that little laugh, and that hopeful phrase.

I am talking about ordinary people, here. But we all know that ordinary people are often extraordinary.  They do things off-camera, privately, that most people don’t even notice.  They make it through another day or another week with pain, or worry, or sadness.  And in doing it, they inspire other ordinary people, like us.


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A Late Loss of Innocence

I grew up in New York City — school, work, marriage, kids.  Then I moved upstate, and going into the city got to be a big deal, something planned, and if the weather was bad I didn’t go.  Coming and going was exhausting; but worse, I didn’t feel like I belonged anymore.  I was a visitor in my own city.

One sunny day I was bouncing all over town, from Macy’s to MOMA ,  making up for lost time, feeling like a tourist, sightseeing my past.  Every place held a memory.  I worked in that building, I bought earrings there,  that’s where I spotted Greta Waitz running, the day before the marathon, that’s where I used to eat when I worked there, that used to be a dress shop, that’s where I stopped Dom DeLuise to tell him how much I liked his work, that’s where the actor Jack Palance nodded and smiled at me.  I saw two kids heading for Central Park and my whole senior year at Hunter College, cutting classes to go to the zoo, flashed before my eyes.  Bittersweet.

On the Upper West Side I boarded a crosstown bus just as the schools were letting out.  I was crammed like an anchovy in a tin against the pole in the front of the bus, unable to move, as people kept boarding.  It was like the old days, when I took buses and trains everywhere, and I was enjoying it all, the kids texting and talking, the energy, a great show.  The man next to me swayed into me, we bumped, our eyes met, and we smiled. A nice moment.

Across town, catching a downtown bus, I reached for my Metrocard and realized my wallet was gone. Of course: the guy, the sway, the bump, the eye contact, the smile.  What a sucker! By the time I reached Grand Central and began calling credit card companies on my cellphone, three of the cards had already been used several times.

“A sitting duck,” a friend said, later.  “A senior citizen..”  And he wasn’t the only one.   “You were targeted,” someone else said. “You looked like a tourist.” I said it myself —  “I guess I was ripe for the picking” — until one of my kids pointed out that that was classic blame-the-victim talk.

Well which was it that made me ripe for the picking? Had I signaled vulnerability by being, excuse the expression, a “senior?”  Or did I seem like someone from Kentucky? And which of those made me feel worse?  Either way, I had somehow left myself wide open, trailing insecurity like untied shoelaces and I got tripped up.

If you have ever lost your wallet or had it stolen, you know the miserable aftermath.  It took about two months to clear up.   But none of that was as bad as feeling that I had been made a fool of.

Still, as they say these days, it is what it is. The city is the city, bitter and sweet.  So, the next time I catch that bus, I’ll think that was the bus I got pickpocketed on and add it to my medley of memories. And wasn’t it lucky that my mother taught me that you should always have a cash stash, and to remember, a pocketbook is not only to carry your things in, you can hit someone with it, too?

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It’s happened before.  I go blueberry picking and get carried away, and come home with nine pounds of blueberries. I hear the siren song of overripe tomatoes in the market and I come home with enough of them so that I will have to rent a tub I can light a fire under to make the sauce.   Bulk amounts of marked-down, slightly- bruised red peppers call to me.  I don’t even try to resist sixteen over-the-hill bananas (that’s eight banana breads, friends) for a dollar.

Do I hesitate? Do I remind myself of the commitment in time and trouble and work that buying distressed fruit and veggies entails?  Do I mention to myself that I’ve got other things to do, and adopting produce which must be dealt with immediately  is not practical? Of course not.  I love a bargain,  having a full freezer makes me feel secure,  I adore the feeling of drowning in smells and tastes, and best of all, being busy with the kitchen bounty leaves no time for things I would rather not do. The fact is, those peppers need to be roasted and peeled and sliced and jarred NOW, or buying them would have been stupid; those blueberries have to be spread on a cookie sheet and picked over until they are clean and ready to freeze, IMMEDIATELY, or they will lose their fantastic flavor; and those tomatoes have to be peeled and seeded and made into a sauce FAST or that deep red sweetness will begin to rot.

One time it was apples: half bushel at an irresistible price and I didn’t resist.   I brought them home.

“What are you going to do with all those apples?” M said.

“Don’t worry, ” I said.

But I was worried.  The basket of apples seemed to have grown since I bought it.  “I’ll make applesauce,” I said.

When I got tired of peeling, and the biggest pot I owned was full to the top, I stopped.  It looked like I had hardly made a dent in the basket.

“I’ll make apple pastry,” I said.  After I made the dough, and chilled it, and rolled it out, and peeled some more apples and sliced them in rings and enrobed them in cut out pieces of the dough, and cooked the leftover rings in a sugar syrup with rum and raisins, the basket of apples was still there.

“Why don’t you make an applecake?” M said. I made two big ones and  staggered out of the kitchen at 2 a.m.

And still…the basket.  It was like being in the middle of one of those fairytales where the girl never gets to the bottom of the flax she’s supposed to be spinning in order to get to marry the prince.  My prince suggested I give some apples away.  So I gave away a bag to my daughter and one to my son, and another to a friend.  We ate applesauce for dessert for ten days straight, and I baked and froze two apple pies.  That took me down to about ten apples, which sat on the counter looking at me, daring me to think of something to do with them, and I couldn’t. I hated them.  I gave them dirty looks until they shriveled up and I threw them away.  You would think I learned some kind of lesson, wouldn’t you?

Well, we all know life isn’t like that.  Next time it was a huge thirty-pound pumpkin, a little bruised and misshapen, and such a bargain I couldn’t resist.  I lost count of how many pies it made.  And now that tomato season is upon us, I’m gearing up again.  Anyone out there with a cauldron I can borrow?


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