Sunday, November 24, 2013

Gratitude is the Attitude - and consider RTO for Holiday giving

I just read a great article in the December issue of Good Housekeeping (women's magazines are a favorite holiday-time indulgence - I can't get enough of those photo essays of perfect food!) about  how helping others can promote optimism which in turn has enormous health benefits.

I've known this at the bone-deep level for a while. One of the biggest challenges of my Terrible Year (as I've come to view the year of my divorce) was maintaining an attitude of compassion and good will, while remembering all the blessings I still had, and the new ones that were sure to come. I was struggling to stay on the Medium Road some days - never mind the High Road - but somehow I intuited that helping someone else might be the best way out of that funk.

I've talked before about how much I enjoy my literacy work in the Oakland public schools, but this year I added a second, very different job: I work on the Tuesday crew to make small home improvements for impoverished elderly here in Oakland.

I had no idea what to expect, and I felt seriously unqualified the first time I showed up, as instructed, in the RTO T-shirt and jeans and boots, ready to work. Since then I've learned a number of skills (some of them involving power tools!) that have enabled me to assist in installing grab bars, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and making other small improvements. I've traveled all over my beloved adopted home town and met some incredibly selfless people, as well as members of my community who have dazzled me with their stories, their memories, their walls full of family photos, their grace and - yes - gratitude. I've had a number of preconceptions shattered, which is the second-best benefit of volunteering, after the incredible optimism boost it gives me, one that lasts long after I get home.

unofficial mascot of the RTO crew,
on recent rainy outing in the ol' RTO pickup
Anyway, I know that many of us face the gift-giving season with a sinking heart. What can we give our loved ones that will actually express our love, that they don't already have? (other than the kids, of course - I'm a firm believer in spoiling the kids in my life absolutely silly) This year I'd like to gently suggest you consider a gift in your friends' names to an organization that can help other folks.

And if you need suggestions, I'll give you three.

Rebuilding Together Oakland

Reading Partners

The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

My compliments to Sherman: no more "By the Book" haters

I'm a week overdue in reversing my grumpy-rampage about the gender-imbalanced cant comprising the "By the Book" column in the New York Times lately.

(For those who'd rather move ahead, check out Amy Tan in this week's column; Amy not only spreads the love, M-F-wise, but also shares my conviction that a prison might be a handy place to get some work done, and had this very wise comment on genre fiction that will appease even with the prickliest of carmudgeons like myself: "I don’t steer clear of genres. I simply haven’t steered myself toward some of them." Ha! Kudos, Amy.)

Some of my smart friends have had literary crushes on Sherman Alexie for years. Now I understand why. Read the whole delightful column, or just enjoy a few of these gems, below. Sherman mentions literally dozens of other authors, proving a generosity of spirit on a level with his own magnificent curiosity, and it's about evenly split between men and women…and genre and literary.


  • "I am a very promiscuous reader. Anytime, anywhere." 
  • "I would love to go on a first date with Dorothy Parker and get verbally eviscerated."
  • "I always have this reflexive animosity toward the new hot writers like Karen Russell or Chad Harbach, so I buy their books, read the first page and then set them aside for months. Eventually, I go back, read the books and discover, of course, that the books are great. It’s my literary pathology."

He has just made the top of my "famous writers I'd invite to dinner" list. (Oh! I just had a bunch of famous writers to dinner! Among others, Rachael Herron and Dave Madden, 1st and 3rd from L in this picture.) Sherman, if you're reading this, totally call me! We'll get something on the calendar!



Monday, November 11, 2013

Farewell, Waffle House

Got some very sad news the other day, via my sharp-eyed brotherhttp://www.mikecooper.com.

The Waffle House where I worked all through college in the 1980s is being torn down:


Such memories I have of that place!  Often, i was either on the graveyard shift (11pm-7am) or, on weekends the early shift, which started at 5am. That shift was especially tough the year I lived in a house with five girls, all of whom liked to party...noisily...on Friday and Saturday nights.

The uniforms were actually pretty cute, at least compared to the dreadful burnt-orange uniform I'd worn at Howard Johnson's all through high school. They were navy blue, jumper style, and if they were made of polyester at least they had a short A-line skirt that made your legs look longer - very good for tips.

I learned a lot from my co-workers and my customers. There were fishermen who came in around 3am, to eat a big meal before they headed out on the lake. There were senior citizens who belonged to a country line dancing club - what I remember most about them was that they were always laughing and teasing each other, playfully accusing each other of trying to steal each other's spouses. The ladies wore lacy crinolines under their skirts even though they were unbelievably old - at least as old as I am now. :) I think those guys had the secret to aging gracefully worked out and I wish I had taken notes.

There were regulars who gathered to discuss what was going on in the world. I'll never forget a night when half a dozen of them came in to discuss a rash of teen suicides taking place in the town. The sense of a community coming together in a very private and fiercely compassionate way has come back to me years later when tragedy struck other communities I've lived in.

There was a boy I flirted with, shamelessly, month after month. He was a line cook and he drove a yellow Datsun pickup truck. He never asked me out. I don't know, but I suspect, that it was because he was a townie and I wasn't. If you ever saw Breaking Away...yeah, some of that was true.

And oh, the food. I used to take a fork and go back into the fridge and eat the cobbler right out of the pan. I *know* that is terrible and I'm going to hell for it, but people, it was so delicious - especially the peach. Home made right there in the kitchen. I also learned to love fried corn meal mush. I've never seen grits/polenta cooked that way, anywhere else but Indiana. I believe I probably ate about 8,000 calories on every shift, but I had a hell of a metabolism back then and I was skinny as a stick.

The article was written for the campus rag, the Indiana Daily Student. It's quite a nice piece by a young woman named Jessica Contrera


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Reinvention for Beginners

Gillian Roberts
 Not long ago I was at an event with author Gillian Roberts when she said “I do love a good reinvention story.”

That struck a chord with me. I’ve been undergoing my own reinvention for long enough now that it feels more like the new normal than like an act of particular bravery, but I do remember that when it first started I was very frightened. In fact, if a whole set of circumstances hadn’t made drastic change not only necessary but unavoidable, I’m not sure I would have been able to pull it off.

my friend Jan
That’s why, when I see my peers starting second acts armed with nothing more than grit, I applaud with enthusiasm. I had lunch with a friend the other day and found out she’d just started a new business. She and I used to be next-door neighbors, our kids in diapers together. About twelve years ago she decided that her old corporate life wasn’t for her, and signed on as an apprentice at a design firm. Today, she is the owner of Jan Galletly Interiors.

I think sometimes I give people the impression that reinventing must be subversive. (The tattoo and extra piercings may contribute to that impression.) But nothing could be further from the truth. Change only needs to be significant to the person making it. 

In the past month, a friend of mine who was a nurse before raising her children and then becoming a widow, returned to school to be an aesthetician. Another friend left a position she’d held at a law firm for many years to become lead counsel at a risky venture. Her comment to me was “If I can’t do this now, at fifty, then when?”

A therapist once told me that if I was uncomfortable, it meant I was doing the right thing, meaning that we have to push ourselves past what we think we can achieve in order to discover what we’re capable of. 

I’m writing this on a Sunday evening, about to put the lid on this week’s work and tidy up the desk for tomorrow. I’ve been thinking that I’d like to try something a little different next week. Now I just need to decide what that might look like.