Friday, December 3, 2010


Words shift in meaning when your priorities shift.

Nuances of language fade when difficult realities come into stark relief—scoffing at luxuries like wit and metaphor. This experience is this reason I have been unable to post anything to my blog for months... until today.

Today is a day off. A vacation day. An unexpected day because I chose not to push myself when I realized I was not actually strong enough for to a trip to the City for a concert.

Having been sick for about six months now, every unplanned day off was health-related, and every planned day off was carefully scheduled for tasks I had no energy for in my routine. I will certainly not bore you with the long, sordid tale of symptoms and months of inadequate medical care, and long-delayed diagnosis and treatment. I will happily sum up my current situation as one who is being treated for Systemic Sarcoidosis with an excellent prognosis of full recovery from my symptoms within a year or less. Though the disease has no cure, most of the time it becomes inactive and remains so after a thorough treatment with corticosteroids (not the kind athletes take—those are anabolic steroids). Prior to the development of steroid medications this particular disease was always fatal. The methylprednisolone I take is a miracle drug and I'm happy to be on it—mustache, weight gain and all!

So here I am, on the mend, with fatigue as my primary symptom so my activities are very limited. But a day off means a day when this limited energy does not have to go to a job, or a chore, but to my own whim. And suddenly my whim is to write again.

Life's biggest lessons are like strong clashes of color that jar you in a painting you'd rather not even look at. If you force yourself to look, you experience the discomfort the painter intended. Not all art is meant to be pretty. Trouble in life presents itself uninvited, but we can't just look away, no matter how disturbing it is. And with no preparation, the choices we make at that moment set the stage for just how we will manage through it—which could be far easier or much harder depending on those choices. In the end, however, we do manage through it. If we're lucky we bring from that journey beautiful new characteristics, attitudes, and gifts for others we will meet along the way, who may need what we have gleaned from our distresses.

The poor decisions I made early in my illness were quite characteristic of my personal inadequacies. Inadequacies that I would need to correct to recover properly. Inadequacies that, had I learned them without my harsh lessons, would possibly have made me healthier and even prevented my sickness in the first place. That's a hard pill to swallow.

I am a recovering workaholic. With careful observation I have humbly noted that my workaholic disease is self-inflicted and counter-productive. I am also lazy. These two are not at all mutually exclusive. I can masochistically work myself to death simply because I'm too lazy to sit down and thoughtfully plan how to better accomplish the same result without so much spinning on the hamster wheel. It's as if the hamster wheel comforts me. It's easier. Just do it. Pausing to organize, considering alternatives, creating boundaries and schedules and realistic goals... these feel more risky. No one can blame you if you're working your tail off. They can see it. Gold stars all around! But if you stop working so hard and get organized about it, then it's possible you will have missed something. Or if you delegate, perhaps they will miss something, or worse, it just won't get done. Then what?

In my world three tasks are always with me. That which I am occupied with, that which I know must be done next, and that which I am nervous about most because it must be done, but I don't know when it can be done.

That third one is always there. I make sure of it. I live for it. And it's what will kill me if I let it continue to possess me. I can only articulate it because of my illness. I was forced to slow down, listen to what was driving me, and evaluate the stress that brought me down.

Time and again over the past few months, when I should have been resting, I drove myself on, causing new symptoms to appear. If I had any strength in me at all, I'd keep going... And get a fever. Or my right eye would turn bright red and the conjunctiva would swell like a big, clear gelatinous bubble. Or the skin on my back would start to hurt all over like someone had dipped me in acid. Crazy, right? But every time I pushed too hard—the way I was totally used to living—something new would happen to my body that would stop me in my tracks. Yet it took months for me to even start to learn this lesson.

Holding the three tasks in my mind at all times is less frequent now. I am learning to live in the present. The greatest gift in the world. I am reading about it, working at it, and taking the time (not being lazy!) to practice it. It is an amazing gift that carries me through pain, fatigue, and disappointment, as well as celebration. I am learning to simply experience what is. Not fear what will come. Not worry about what won't. Right now. Right here. This is. Not good. Not bad. I am here now doing this, feeling this, experiencing exactly this. And it's sort of like a miracle, whatever it is.

Now I read more. When I have to be in bed, I accept it. I bead or knit. I've made a lot of jewelry and I'm enjoying selling it on Etsy. These things don't take physical effort and allow me to feel human, creative, while still being very simple to do. And I experience them. I thoroughly enjoy placing each bead, or feeling the yarn in my fingers as I knit. And the brand new experience of letting go... of selling my work... is exhilarating. I was sure it would be hard, but it's the opposite. Each piece is made with love, thoughtfully and carefully selecting materials and how they balance each other. And sending them off to some stranger is like giving what I've made a brand new lease on life. Sort of crazy, right? "Be appreciated" is what I think for each creation as it leaves my world, as if I've given that pair of earrings a gift of a new owner, rather than giving the buyer a gift of a pair of earrings!

If you were to go through something really rough in your life I would care about that. And I would really love to know how you grew, what you learned, how that changed your perception of life itself. But not everyone has the desire to share such intimate revelations. I, on the other hand, am a bit of an exhibitionist, I suppose. I discover a gem, like living in the present, and I want to shout it from the rooftops. But someone else discovered it first and shared it with me in a book, in an article. What have you discovered? My desire to know your secret to life is much of what compels me to share my own discoveries.

Like giving you the gift I wish you'd give me, as an example to you. This is completely illogical, however. No one receives any gift thinking that the giver is sending a secret message of their own wish for a gift like that for themselves. Likewise, you may not read into my discovery about living in the present as my desire to hear about your discovery of whatever secret keeps you sane in your chaotic life... but truly, I do want to learn from you. I'm like a quilt maker gathering precious fragments of cloth, so that I can stitch together a blanket of peace and calm to wrap myself in, heal my body, restore my creativity, and know that my world will not only survive without my hamster wheel, but prosper.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Revolve With Me

When I was born in the 1950's

american culture was embracing right angles

poetry was beat

architecture modern in juxtaposed quadrangles

every size and proportion of blocks

built geometric puzzles and art

explained itself in grids of

white and black, or color.

Everything could be broken down

to golden rectangles in the end.

But that logic escaped us

as we discovered that smaller then tinier

and deeper and grander

and even more expansive

elements of the universe were

swirling into fractals of

spirals and coils and curves.

We can no longer compartmentalize our lives

As all the world magnifies now.

Every little thing intersects, overlaps, and calls to

every other thing we experience,

hear, see, know.

We are swept up in a whirl of voices

hearing our friends, family, celebrities, dissidents.

Their siren song wafting up from glowing screens

and filling our daydreams with a cacophony of

opinions on every stylistic and political nuance of our lives.

The divisions are gone.

The barriers, the boundaries, the safety zones.

All day long their mash-up of thoughts and feelings

elicit a visceral urge to flee to the shore,

the mountains, the jungle... and experience

what is raw and un-opinionated:


Come fly with me up into this

whirl a fight to swirl myself into

all of it and retain my uniqueness

in spite of all of it.

I now seek and sing my soul's song

hear myself and my experience

in my own head

just one decibel above the cry of public

and formerly private outcries.

Be the little burl in the massive maple with me

Live in the conch's swirled home

Circle the whorl of a baby's cowlick

and the rose.

We are spiraling out of control into the universe

of both the tiny and expansive with

a sweep of the arm with the paintbrush

with everything rotating on its axis

everything spinning away

and coming back.

Curling ocean waves ripple from

another continent wash ashore

and pull way back again leaving a trickle

in the fractals of sand sliding under my toes

calling the salty blood in the

tiniest capillary of my little toe

to speak with the microbe

in the tiniest tide pool

across the barriers

of skin and seawater.

Maintaining this dialogue that

ever expands and contracts

(like our pupil contracting to focus on the stars

and relaxing to see cellular floaters within its orb)

tires us but drives us on

with the fantasy that

if we could only trace the perfect spiral

walk nature's precise labyrinth

and speak the absolute truth

we'd be free.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Interview Tips for my Daughter

Anyone out there have kids interviewing for jobs? Below is what I wrote for my daughter last night as she was preparing for a big interview today. Perhaps it was my seven months at, or perhaps it was my two layoffs in four years and six months of job hunting between each... but I felt an obligation to share a little wisdom with my sprout the publicist. Just for fun I've included a photo of my size six interview suit when I got my job at Bowker in 2000. (I've landed four jobs since then... without being a size six.)

For an in-person interview you usually speak to several people. The first will be in Human Resources. Manage your responses and questions appropriately for their relation to you - things about the company more than the job, things about your attitude in general, work ethic, etc. That's where you'll get the forms to fill out. Then, if you meet their criteria, you'll get passed along to the hiring manager (your boss) and possibly, if you pass theirs and they love you and are in a hurry to hire, your boss' manager. Though this step normally occurs in the second interview. At your level there will likely be no more than two.

Here are some great general interview tips for you:

1. Stay "on" every minute. Every stranger in the hall that you pass, receptionist - they are ALL interviewing you in one way or another so always be super cool with everyone. Shake hands confidently when you introduce yourself. You want to be the one they all want to hang with at the office.

2. Be curious. Remember to ask about the job as well as answering their questions about you. After they're done telling/ asking what they have to say, ask things about your daily responsibilities, what percentage of time will be spent doing X, how many on your team, how many authors will you be working with (or something else relevant to the position - I don't know what that might be). And try asking anything you can think of about something you learned about the company on their website. "I noticed you have operations in Germany. Will I be working with any German authors?" you get the idea. These show you're thinking and smart - not just "I'll take any job."

3. Take notes. If you want to do that, just ask in the beginning of the interview if they mind if you take notes (they never will) and be prepared with a small pad and pen for whenever they give details about your job or the company. Write down something personal they say, or particular about the job that you did not know. (You can use this in your Thank-You note.) This will impress them - but don't do it if you don't want to.

4. Tell stories - Paint pictures. The interviewer is trying to picture you fitting in there - so tell stories of your experiences that will help her/him paint a visual picture of you doing things in their company. You've told me many stories about your authors, Joan, etc. that I know would work fine. Use the stories in response to their questions.

They may ask about your greatest achievement... again, a nice story is great, so have two or three stories prepared depending on the type of questions they might ask. Don't memorize them - just recall what happened and have it in your back pocket.

Common interview questions (with some thoughts on responses):

1. What is the biggest obstacle you ever had to overcome at work... and what did you do about it? Imagine your worst day when everything was going wrong and how you pulled it all together and became Joan's hero. They will picture themselves needing a hero like you.

2. What do you hate doing? Be honest but careful - a good answer might be, sometimes I have to wait to release information to the media because the timing is not right. That frustrates me because I'd prefer to get the news out as soon as possible. But I understand that the correct timing is more important than early timing some times. You get the idea.

3. What do you enjoy doing most? (try to think of something other people might hate!)

4. What is your strongest point? (again, make this something they may have trouble finding in others)

5. What is your greatest weakness? (common o.k. answers are: perfectionist, or, maybe more appropriate - I get very excited about work and come across more enthusiastically than I may want to - I think I'm supposed to be professional and subdued... fyi: of course they love enthusiasm.

6. Where do you see yourself in 5 years? I want to be a top publicist eventually - write releases, (pick a couple of other responsibilities), maybe travel with authors (?). I am hoping to make my next move, now, to a company that can provide that kind of longevity and growth for me.

Ask "When can I expect to hear from you again?" or "How soon do you plan to make your decision?" Let them know you are really eager.

Everyone knows this is a game... but if you don't know, and you don't play, something's wrong with you (they assume) and you won't get the job. This way they'll say, "Ahhh! she knows these rules, so she probably knows all the other rules too - like how to get her job done."

I know you can do this job and that you deserve to be paid much more than you are. Just relax, smile, experience every moment... Be present ; )

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Shine a Light

Last night a young woman told me she had just experienced sexual harassment in the work place and did not know what to do. It's her right to speak up—but it could mean losing her job. The law? This is about life and how things go. You can't prove someone grabbed you too tight and whispered "wear something sexy to work" in your ear, when it's you that offered a friendly good-bye hug at the end of the day.

She felt disgusted, sick, furious. So did I. Why would anyone feel they are entitled to express their un-requited desires? It's difficult to comprehend. But we have to.

My personal opinion is that silence is to blame. If we spoke more freely with the young men around us about the impact of this type of intrusion they would learn to respect women more. I told her to speak up. Tell him he can't talk to her like that. She won't stand for it. "Apologize to me right now and never even let it cross your mind to behave like that again." There's no second chance. No gray area.

I'm going to tell you a personal story that changed my life. And it is as a result of this story, and thousands of stories - excuse me - millions of stories like it, that I feel that silence is not a response, it is an offense in itself.

When I was 5 or 6 my uncle visited us and stayed in the basement of our big house in Montclair, New Jersey. He was in his mid 20s at the time and between jobs. One week-end morning my father was cooking blueberry pancakes and sent me downstairs to wake my uncle for breakfast.

My uncle woke up in a state of arousal and forced me to pleasure him with my little hands. I was just as scared to not do what he said, as I was scared about doing it. He was forceful. I can still remember the feeling of how fast my heart was beating and being conscious of it, as if I had never felt that sensation in my heart before. He threatened to kill me if I told. I seem to remember mention of a gun, but I never saw one. It may even be that I imagined he mentioned a gun because my young mind could only associate the word kill with a gun.

When I ascended the basement stairs into the kitchen no one noticed me. No one noticed I had been down there too long. No one noticed I had not been eating blueberry pancakes. No one saw that my life had just changed forever. That it would now take me ten years to experience pleasure with my husband. That I would never be able to speak up for myself or fight back when bullied. No one saw that my face had lost its innocence and fear had taken its place. No one noticed me at all.

In my thirties I remembered this incident in therapy. At first it was the nightmare I recalled. A wolf came into my bedroom and snatched me from my bed, carrying me all through my house screaming, and I was shocked that in spite of my screaming, no one awoke. Then he boldly carried me in my nightgown right out the front door and down the street, screaming the entire way. No one noticing. No one rescuing me. I dreamt this many times growing up.

When I eventually remembered the incident it was crystal clear. Every detail. Sensation. Emotion. Touch. Smell. The rapid heartbeat in my chest. And now, hearing that a man whispered into that young woman's ear - it all races back. A man just yielding to impulse without using his brain.

What if my uncle had known the impact that those few minutes would have on an entire lifetime? Would he have mustered a little self control?

You may find it surprising that I write openly about such a personal issue. But there is a method to this madness. Although I have worked hard to become a healthy adult, I live with the fact that up to 70% of women have suffered sexual harassment ( Most never overcome the debilitating effects of it. Sexual harassment in the work place costs millions in lost productivity. Imagine how many more millions have gone to therapy and healthcare, and I'm sure it has cost marriages. I have no tolerance for the inevitable continuation of this cycle. I believe that by throwing off the cloak of mystery and revealing the very personal, perhaps humiliating truth, we can fight this epidemic of selfish entitlement like the insidious enemy it is.

Are you one of the 70%?

Tell your sons what happened to you. How it made you feel. What long-term impact it had on your life. Tell your sons the consequences of selfish behavior, of impulsive, un-welcomed remarks. All young men should be helped to understand the consequences—sleepless nights, nightmares, mistrust, poor life choices—that result from cloudy judgement when, with even just one incident, your self esteem has been sacrificed to the whims of a powerful force of nature you can't anticipate, understand, or defend against.

And notice your little girls, dammit. Pay attention to any change. Don't be scared of the truth. Be brave. Be bold. Be curious. Be mindful. Be inquisitive. And pay careful attention to what a child may not be able to say. Open your eyes and notice for yourself. Truth will make you strong, don't fear it. Truth will shine a light and guide you through the maze of difficult consequences that it brings. Consequences that are far, far worse if the truth is ignored for thirty or forty years.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Plantation Pondering I

By their girth I wonder if the trees here may be old enough to remember.

Large low limbs stretch evenly with the sandy earth, innocently twined with a child's swing rope. I picture my generous hostess' grandchildren enjoying a warm southern breeze in July, swinging out toward Cowen's Creek, the slowly passing river only a few steps away.

This is a plantation home. Magnificent in its stature, and thoughtful in its design. I sit facing the river in a room surrounded by windows on three sides that extends beyond the house over a large room that holds a grand piano and a grander fireplace. I'm surrounded by the love of this family and the artifacts of their history and knowing that she purchased it in 1990, I know her ancestors took no part in the history here... But my history on my father's mother's side, and the history of my hostess and so many more, are never-the-less rooted in this sandy earth in the very deep south where, as a visitor, I can't help thoughtfully pondering the footsteps of those who walked the halls of this historic house more than a hundred years ago.

My father lives a few short miles away on an island with a golf course up against his lawn. I gazed out of the window yesterday, as I worked at his desk, and saw the pot bellied white haired golfers in their carts chasing their little ball from here to there and enjoying their sport. And I saw a gardener. The same age, but thin, stooped over, and laboring with equipment and fertilizers, the efforts working his ancient ebony skin punctuating a stark contrast to retirement's pleasures.

My father's grandfather may have enslaved his grandfather. I can never know. But everywhere I turn ghosts are here. Each large, low-limbed tree, each room in this large, spacious home, each view my eyes behold... is suspect.


Toward the end of my wonderful stay in that magnificent home I learned that this very house had become a monument to freedom and recovery from slavery. Known as the Penn School, the house had been one of the very earliest schools for freedmen in the south, founded by a group of women from Pennsylvania. You may learn more about it here:

The house has regular tours come through it because, even though it is a private residence, the owner is proud of its heritage and happy to support the memory of its history. The house may have held painful memories at one point, and probably did, but hopeful, even joyful changes in history followed them.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Ghost of Mardi Gras

I traveled to New Orleans on January 6th. It was the first day of the Mardi Gras season, or so I was told. The trade show was a big success, the law professors were generous with their support as I gathered market research for my new job.

But outside of the Hilton the city stretched out its tired bones and begged for morsels like a stray dog, hungry and too weak to bark. Shops attended by their staff. Restaurants with clean linens. Hotels with freshly made beds. They all awaited us expectantly, but a group of visitors coming for a trade show is not salvation enough for New Orleans.

As I stepped up to pay at a souvenir shop on Bourbon Street, the shopkeeper interrupted my sale to ask the young man behind me, "you local?" When he said yes she said, "two bucks." One dollar for a large bottle of water and one dollar for a pack of cigarettes. He handed her the cash and left without another word. Then she rang up my purchase, the only other customer in the large and packed-with-silly-stuff souvenir store. Four small bottles of hot sauce with fun labels and a little ceramic box made in Mexico with a mardi gras mask painted on it. $41.00. I paid $10 per item for the local kid's $1.00 per item. It seemed about right. I gladly paid it.

The most painful sight during my trip was the place I avoided until I had no choice. I had walked around it every day, despite the 30 degree temperature. But on my last evening it was pouring rain and I had no umbrella, so I gathered my courage and took the shortcut through Harrah's Casino.

I did not know what to expect. I had not realized that there were casinos in New Orleans. It was shiny and glamourous outside and inside. As noisy as any casino in Vegas with flashing machines screaming for coins, glitzy music and practiced voices over the speaker announcing chances to play. Chances to win. In a large area of black jack there were two tables with players. In one expanse after another, a host of slot machines occupied a handful of scattered gamblers.

But the sight I had not known to dread walked straight toward me so that I could not avoid it. A middle aged man and a woman, maybe a couple but maybe not. Maybe a man and his mother. Maybe siblings. Maybe friends. They were so unkept and shaggy that I could not tell their age. Their clothes were dirty and torn and they shuffled with their backs bent in a humiliated way I cannot even describe without pain coursing through my soul. They carried a bucket between them, each a hand on its handle, and with vacuous eyes stared down the rows of slot machines for the one that would save them.

There is plenty of parking if you drive to New Orleans. The streets are open, empty, easy to walk across. There are many taxi cabs in New Orleans. They are parked on every street. Just knock on the window and get in if you need a ride.

Who visited New Orleans when her streets were full of rhythm and jazz, the aroma of French and cajun cuisine, and the pulse and thrill of her burlesque?

Where are they now?
I have only been there for business, myself, but it is the beginning of Mardi Gras, they say. Will you go?