Rebel Beat

1 Dec
The Office - photo by Lisa Kolanowski

The Office – photo by Lisa Kolanowski

“Please don’t treat me like I’m stupid when I ask you questions about things I don’t understand,” I said quietly as I shifted around in the uncomfortably hard chair trying to find a comfortable way to sit that didn’t trigger the pain.

“I’m not treating you like you’re stupid,” she responded with a slightly exasperated sigh while clicking through screen after screen of information trying to find what she needed. “I just don’t have the answers to your questions.”

“That I can understand and accept,” I replied as I watched her.  She couldn’t have been much more than twenty-five, and I could hear the tension in her voice, so I slipped into my comfortable teacher mode and commented, “You must be very stressed.”

“You have no idea,” she murmured as she sunk low in her chair and leaned forward to rest her head in her hands.

I was sitting across the desk from the Department of Health and Human Services case worker who had the power to make it possible for me to get the food stamps I desperately needed, and having been on the other side of the desk as a teacher, I knew that life on that side wasn’t any easier.

How I wound up here is a whole other story, and one that I will be telling over the next few weeks, but on that chilly Tuesday before Thanksgiving I took the bus to Evanston and sat in the holding pen with hundreds of other people who were waiting to see case workers.

A Chinese woman who was close to my age, asked me questions about health insurance and whether I had it (I did, thus far).  She said that she’d had good health insurance, until she’d gotten sick and the premiums skyrocketed to the point that she could no longer afford them.  She was there to see what kind of help because she said she was scared of what might happen if she didn’t have any insurance at all and I nodded, knowing all too well what could happen even if she did have insurance.

I smiled reassuringly and told her everything would be okay; that she was smart to be proactive.

What else do you say when you’re sitting in an open room full of worried people being monitored by bored security guards who’ve become immune to what’s going on around them?

My new friend was called in first and smiled nervously as I waved goodbye and wished her luck.

My turn would not come until after I’d watched two Eastern European teenagers whisper and text a cute boy on one of the girl’s phones while a harried mother hauled two small children up to the front when her name was called.  The toddler looked like a tiny sausage stuffed in a royal blue casing precariously perched on a pair of thick-soled winter boots, but he managed to giggle and dance his way to the front infusing the room with a bit of joy before everything returned to business as usual.

When I was called in for my appointment, my case worker held the door then pivoted and briskly marched toward her cubicle as I lagged behind. It struck me that the office resembled one of those mazes that scientists use to train rats, and I suddenly felt sad for the people who had to work in it.

How does one maintain the ability to treat others with dignity while working in an impersonal institutional environment like this?

It wasn’t until after we’d gone through the basics and she’d corrected errors on my application that I made my observation about her stress.

She told me that she’d seen a drastic increase in middle-class Americans who need help with food, housing, and health care. And told me about people with advanced degrees who’d lost their jobs and were living in homes without heat and whose children relied school lunch programs for at least one meal.

I asked her if she got to follow up with the people whose paperwork she processed, and she replied, “Oh no!  I only process the paperwork. I don’t actually get to work with people outside of the initial intake.”

I asked her how many cases she processes per day, and she said, “On a good day maybe nine or ten.”

Suddenly I understood her stress and frustration, not only was she processing more than one case per hour, but she was also seeing people like herself on the other side of the desk.  On some level, it must have been easier to help people who were impoverished, homeless or drug addicted because they seemed so different (or so she thought), but when educated middle-class people are out of work and can’t feed themselves or their children, the precariousness of one’s own position suddenly becomes apparent.

There was something oddly reassuring and profoundly disturbing about this discussion as it made me realize I’m not alone.  I’m not alone.

According to the 2012 documentary A Place at the Table, 50 million Americans are labeled “food insecure.”  These people often do not know where their next meal is coming from and, even when they do, are failing to meet basic nutritional needs on a daily basis.

While I didn’t reach this level before I received help, I was way too close for comfort, and part of what kept me from reaching out was that I didn’t come from a family that was food insecure, I am educated and, from the outside, I don’t “seem” poor, so I didn’t feel like I qualified for help.

But the situation I find myself in right now has been a perfect storm of unexpected medical issues compounded by corporate insurance policies that are designed to preserve profit at all costs and leave thousands of people like myself in desperate situations every year.

The truth is that I have felt ashamed, embarrassed, scared and humiliated to be in this position, and I didn’t want anyone to know.

However, as I’ve drafted this blog entry, I’ve been reminded over and over of my constant preaching about “being the change.” I have shared uplifting quotes or stories that have turned the darkness into something brighter with friends and family, and as they share their quotes and stories, I have been reminded that this is not forever.  This afternoon, as my finger again hovered over the save and post button on this entry and I told myself that it could wait another day, a very wise and kind former student wrote a public message on my Facebook page that made me realize I cannot no longer remain silent.

I am one of the many faces of public assistance in America.

While I am incredibly grateful for the help, I find the reasons why I (and millions of other people) am in desperate need of it absolutely unacceptable.

And if I am going to live up to the expectations of the people I love and respect, then I am going to make darn sure I will be part of the change I want to see in the world.





Dream Again

28 Aug
Guts Over Fear - Photo by Lisa Kolanowski

Guts Over Fear – Photo by Lisa Kolanowski

A few days ago, my mother confirmed my status as a life-long optimist when she told me that, as a toddler, my standard response to the question “How are you, Mary Alice?” was always an enthusiastic, “I’m too too happy!”

For those who know me, this probably does not come as any big surprise.  I firmly believe that joy comes out of sorrow and that this perspective is a choice. Yet I think that, at times, my optimism has the tendency to be interpreted as naivete or downright Pollyanna-ish.

And I understand why.

In a world where so much pain, suffering, injustice, violence, and hatred occurs on a daily basis, it is incredibly difficult to maintain any kind of optimism or hope that anything can change.  My optimism doesn’t deny or ignore all of this, instead every day, I make the choice to actively seek out and acknowledge the many reasons to feel hopeful about the possibility of change.

This week I read Jorie Ella’s piece “Let’s Keep it Real: The ALS Bucket Challenge is an Embarrassment” and then I read Amy Phillips’ “I Don’t Care if You Think it’s a Gimmick: Please, Please Keep Dumping Ice on Your Heads” — and I felt hopeful.

Whether the challenge is deemed useless or useful is a matter of perspective, but the one thing that has become clear is that the Ice Bucket Challenge is inspiring strong reactions and pushing people to engage in discussions that extend far beyond ALS.

People like my beautiful friend, Courtney, whose strong, brilliant father has been stolen from her by this horrible disease, have said, “It makes me feel like the world is behind me!”

And maybe that’s enough to make it worthwhile.

Other people have opposed the challenge because they view it as a shameful waste of water, ALS as a disease that disproportionally affects middle-aged white males, and the social media frenzy surrounding the challenge as a colossal waste of time and is distracting people from the real issues like the war in Gaza, the outbreak of Ebola in Africa, racial and socio-economic injustice in Ferguson, the militarization of police forces in the US, the failure of the US educational system, and countless other issues that deserve attention.  People are being criticized for dumping buckets of water on themselves before donating to ALS research, but those who oppose this waste of water have extended the discussion to include the global need for clean drinking water and conservation efforts, whlie others have found creative ways to participate in the challenge without wasting water.

But here’s the thing…

Everywhere I look, people are engaging in conversations!  Conversations that include links to alternate perspectives, and questioning of ideologies.  Conversations that involve voices from around the globe.  Conversations that often become heated, but attempt to maintain (for the most part) a certain level of respect.

It’s not that I think people should avoid disagreements or that they shouldn’t express their outrage over the ongoing violence and injustice; it’s just that I don’t see how problems are ever going to be solved unless people feel like they’re being heard.  And my experience in classrooms has taught me that once people feel like they matter – like their voice is being heard – anything is possible.

It’s this possibility, and the small, every-day miracles, that propel me forward and keep my optimism alive.

And if my optimism is what makes a difference to even one person, then “I’m too too happy” to be one of the millions who continue to strive to be a small part of the change they want to see in the world.



Break Free

20 Aug
Reflection/Perception - Photo by Lisa Kolanowski

Reflection/Perception – Photo by Lisa Kolanowski

I had to laugh a little when, this past week, my friend Rachel and I were discussing an exchange I’d had with a guy in St. Louis who was angry with the protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, and how I’d approached the situation from the standpoint of asking questions and listening to the response rather than jumping to conclusions – and down the guy’s throat.

Rachel commented, “I think you’re able to see things that many others don’t take the time to see …You take the time and you dissect the situation…you don’t jump to any conclusions.”

I laughed, and replied, “Oh, I always jump to conclusions!  It’s just that I’m learning to keep quiet until I know what’s going on!”


Two week ago, I was ready to call the police on a neighbor who’d left his windows open and allowed his dog to bark non-stop for five hours.

I was absolutely furious that someone would be so rude and insensitive, and as I called the rental company to report the dog for the third time in a week, I wanted to go down and give the guy a piece of my mind.

To their credit, the rental company responded immediately and addressed the issue, but it didn’t stop the problem; it simply cut the barking time from five hours to three.  I grew increasingly more irritated as, in our u-shaped complex, the barking bounced off the brick walls and felt like it was coming from inside my apartment.

Three days ago, I went out for my afternoon walk and as I was exiting the front gate, I was lovingly accosted by a very friendly five-month old Labradoodle named Vanessa.

As I stopped to pet her, I exchanged small talk with her owner; asking how old she was and where he got her.  He confessed that his uncle had pushed him to take her after his dog had had a huge litter of pups, and that she was causing him all kinds of problems with her barking.

Suddenly it dawned on me that this was the barking dog that was driving the neighborhood crazy.

As we talked, her owner told me about how he was afraid of being evicted, but that he didn’t know what to do to stop her. I told him I was one of the people who’d called management — because I was concerned that something was wrong since she’d barked for five hours straight (sometimes a spoon full of sugar helps the message go down).  He apologized, and told me what had been going on.

He said he’d never raised a puppy before, and had been trying to figure out what she was doing by sitting outside the apartment and waiting for her to bark, and then going in and scolding her, but that he was frustrated because it wasn’t helping.

Having spent almost a decade partnered with a veterinary technician who brought home every orphaned animal on the planet, I immediately understood his problem.

As we talked, I slipped suggestions about toys he could buy that would keep her occupied and techniques he could use to stop her barking into the conversation, and warned him that if he didn’t nip the bad behavior in the bud now, he was going to wind up with a very bad adult dog.

He laughed and said she did, indeed, have him wrapped around her paw, but that he didn’t know where to begin to break the bad habits.

I told him that the first thing he had to do was to make sure that he only reinforced the good behavior.  No more going out, waiting for her to bark, and the going back in because it only rewarded her by giving her what she wanted – his presence.

I told him that he needed to ignore her (unless she was doing something that was dangerous) until she behaved the way he wanted her to.  A confused look crossed his face, but as I got up to go on my walk Vanessa, who had been laid out dozing on the walk next to her owner, gave me the perfect “teachable moment.”

She jumped up and put her huge puppy paws on my stomach as she begged for attention.  I took both of her paws in my hands, put them on the ground, and said, “Vanessa, SIT!” as I held up my index finger in the universal sign for sit.  She looked at her owner, and then jumped up on me again.

Again, I put her paws on the ground, but this time her owner held up his finger and firmly said, “Vanessa, sit!”  She looked at him for a moment, and then sat nicely, and I swooped in to kiss her soft fuzzy face as I praised her lavishly for her good behavior.

The third time she jumped up, I pushed her off, folded my arms across my chest and looked away as her owner said, “Vanessa, sit!”

Vanessa immediately sat, and looked up wagging her tail as I bent down and gave her all the attention she wanted.

Her owner looked at me in amazement as I said, “It’s as easy as that!  But it’s the constant reinforcement that’s going to be hard because she’s so adorable!”  He laughed and waved goodbye as I headed out for my walk.

As I walked, I thought about how the conversation had completely changed my perspective on the situation.  My neighbor was no longer “the rude guy with the annoying barking dog;” now he was “Vanessa’s owner” who was trying to figure out how to train her to be quiet.  We had listened to one another and helped each other find solutions to the problem rather than escalate the situation to the point that I became an enraged tenant, and he got evicted.

I’m not saying that all problems can be fixed as simply as this, but I do believe that, for me, half the battle was deciding that being the change is more important than being right, and then changing my behavior to reflect that belief.

In many ways, I do think that Rachel was right when she said, “Really it just comes down to you listening.”

And as I sit here typing – and listening – I am happy to report that I haven’t heard a single bark all week.

The next time I see Vanessa, I’m going to give her a big reward!


Sword in the Stone

24 Jun


“Be the change” has been my mantra for years.  In fact, when I was teaching in Michigan, I said it so often that students would sometimes attribute the quote to me (as an English instructor I used it as a “teachable moment” to discourage plagiarism by properly attributing it to its rightful owner – Gandhi).

Attribution issues aside, I was gratified to realize that the message was getting through because my students felt like the best hope for change, and when I left the classroom in 2012, I worried that I wouldn’t feel that hope anymore.

I need not have worried.  Thanks to technology and social media, I’m finding small pockets of people who are doing things they love and being the change in their own corner of the world.

A few weeks ago, I saw a tweet from the Baltimore band, Blind Man Leading.  I followed the link, and watched one of the most uplifting band videos I’ve seen in a long time – maybe ever.  As I listened to the music and the band members (drummer/producer Paul Mercer, bass player/vocalist Tyler Wheeler, and guitarist/lead singer Dave Wentz) talk about what inspires them to make music, what struck me was their gratitude for their fans and their desire to build a community by making music that draws listeners together.

Dave explained, “Swords is a thank you to all of the people who listen,” Tyler followed, saying, “The purpose of this album is to get people to come out and listen,” and when Paul chimed in, “We appreciate all of the people who come to see us so much.  How do you capture that in a recording – that sense of community?” I was hooked.  These guys make music because they love both the creative process of making the music and the experience of gifting it to their listeners in their performances.

So, I tweeted back and told them they should come to Chicago, and to my surprise they responded!  As we engaged in a short exchange about a tour budget and how fan lottery winnings might be the way to fund it, I was amazed at their genuine interaction with fans via what can be such an impersonal medium.

I did a little research and listened to more of their music on their Bandcamp page, then bought the album, and listened to it for a few days.  The Bandcamp description of them as crafting and playing “…melodic, expressive songs that feature bright chords and upbeat, jazz-influenced rhythms” is absolutely accurate.  There’s something very honest and real about their music, and I felt uplifted hearing them sing, “You have choices.”

Dave, Paul, and Tyler in Philadelphia

Dave, Paul, and Tyler in Philadelphia – photo credit @amorealta (Paul’s Instagram)

So, being the rookie fan I am, I found the band’s email address and wrote them asking if they’d mind me blogging about them and their positive message. They responded much more quickly than I’d imagined they would, and were incredibly open to being part of my blog and generous about answering questions.

I wrote, “I’ll tell you that what really inspired me to want to write about you guys (beside the fact that I enjoyed your music) were two things in particular: the YouTube video where you talked about how you feel about your fans and the link on your page to the International Justice Mission.  In a world full of slickly packaged, commercialized music (which has its own place/value), I think music lovers are searching for (and often desperately craving) “real” experiences and it appears to me that this is something you guys strive to provide.”

To which Paul responded, “…we’re pretty fed up with the “slickly packaged, commercialized” part of the industry you’re alluding to, so we’ve made it a point to just write the best music we can and share it with people in an honest and genuine way. We seriously appreciate people who listen to the tunes and come to see us…we mean it when we say it means the world to us. So instead of complaining about the Modern Music Industry, or trying to be part of it, we simply try to connect with people through the music.”

When I wrote back and asked for background information, they immediately sent me links to their sites and a review of their album Bostonia.

It’s bands like this that give me hope.  They aren’t out to hit the top 40 (although, I’m sure they wouldn’t object to occupying a spot) or make a million dollars (though, again, I’m sure there would be few objections), they’re dedicated to making music that they love and music that they can share with audiences who appreciate their musical ability to create and fuel a community.

Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 9.35.59 AM

Design by Sam Paxton of Ghost Hotel

They’re currently working on their next EP release, Kerosene, and will be performing with Ghost Hotel and Seagulls on July 12 at Cafe Nola in Frederick, MD.

I don’t live close enough to make it to this performance, so I’m going to buy a lottery ticket with the hope that perhaps I can win the change that might make a tour possible!




Twitter: @BMLtheband

Vivid in the Valley

5 Jun


On this blog (and most everywhere else), I talk about dreaming big and having faith in those dreams.  I believe in this, and I try my best to walk the talk, but sometimes my faith wavers and the dream feels like it’s too far out of reach as unexpected detours take me miles away from where I’m headed.

It’s usually at that moment that someone or something presents itself as a hopeful sign of  Steve Jobs’ sage reminder that “…you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

This week I discovered the debut single from the ambient pop group Silvery Ghosts, and as I began to learn more about the band – and the singer/songwriter behind it – I realized that this was yet another sign that sometimes the long way around is the only way to get to where you belong.

In the past five years, band founder Hank Kim has been through what he calls “an amazing, humbling journey.”  Kim, a native of Dayton, Ohio, released his first album, Blue Alibi in 2005 after having been introduced to New York indie rock mainstay, Mike Daly.  According to Blue Alibi liner notes, Daly, on the rebound after having disbanded his group Whiskeytown, “…became intrigued with the singer’s raw, idiosyncratic voice and melodic hooks, chronicling the jagged tales of misfits, rebels, and other bruised souls, flailing at the ghosts of redemption, in turns that are both comic and heartbreaking.”

At the end of 2001, in the wake of destruction, Kim and Daly walked into Soho’s Magic Shop and began the hopeful process of recording what would become the base for the rest of the album’s tracks.  Over the next two years, they worked with “…Dan Rieser (Marcy Playground, Norah Jones), drummer Alan Bezozi (Freedy Johnston), keyboardist John Deley (Dido), bassist Joe Quigley, and Sir Tim Bright, the renaissance man of Avenue U, who lent his distinctive touch to everything from the guitar and 6-string bass to the harmonium…” to produce an album that cleverly combined acoustic storytelling traditions with the yearning ache of Kim’s vocals and gave it a musical backing that transcended eras planting him squarely in the center of the power pop movement.

If you think I’m overstating the case, give “May/December Girl” a listen and you’ll see what I mean.

For various reasons, the album didn’t get the attention it deserved, but Kim was undeterred and set about working on his sophomore effort.  It would take him nearly four years to record Notorious Rainproof Smile, which moved Kim’s vocals away from the acoustic crooner style toward an edgier, indie rock sound.  The effort took its toll, and by the time it was ready for release he felt lost.  According to Kim, “I didn’t even bother to give the record a proper release.  I thought I was done as a musician and a songwriter.  I felt like the biggest fake – that I didn’t really have anything to say that anyone would want to hear.  All of the old demons were barking real loud.”

At that point, Kim let go of the music and began to reinvent himself by enrolling in acting school and starting his own business.  It wasn’t until 2010, after a failed relationship, that Kim felt the reemerging urge to create music.  In the spring of that year, he sat down at his computer and let loose the river of raw, uncensored thoughts and emotions that would become the basis for Love & Other Ephemera.

Finally hitting the studio in 2013, Kim tapped Nate Martinez (formerly of Pela and Theiving Irons) to produce the album.  According to the band’s website, together they worked to capture musical ephemera, a sound that Kim calls, “music without boundaries…the sense of searching for truthful expression that may or may not be relevant years from now but captures the emotional essence of a given moment in time.” They combined elements of modern electronic music and programming with traditional tools like piano and acoustic guitar as well as touches of Eastern sounds including the Saz (a Turkish 7-Stringed instrument with the intonation of a mandolin) and the sitar. Kim also brought gifted vocalist Kelli Scarr (who collaborated with Moby on 2010’s “Gone to Sleep”) on board for eight of the albums ten tracks.

In Silvery Ghosts’ first single, Vivid in the Valley, the combination of Scarr’s ripe, sultry voice languidly wrapping around the sophisticated ache of Kim’s trademark croon fans the embers and makes the song positively burn.  The official music video is currently being edited by director, Jeaneen Lund.

The release of Love & Other Ephemera on June 9 signals both the rebirth and the return of an artist who has embraced the pain of the past, recognizing that “All the twists and turns of the past were necessary for me to find my voice as a singer and an artist.”  As he looks forward to what is next,  Kim explains, “Silvery Ghosts is an opportunity to finally assert myself.  I feel like the training wheels are coming off with this record.  I may actually know what the hell I’m doing.  It’s a great feeling.”

Once again, I’m reminded that it’s the journey that matters. All of the twists, turns, and detours that create our rich, memorable lives are what we carry and, ultimately, leave behind.

The destination is simply the satisfaction of knowing we’ve finally connected all the dots.

Updated June 10: Lund’s video was posted, and all I can say is that this better come with a fire extinguisher because it’s SMOKIN’ HOT!

Silvery Ghosts will perform on June 23 at Rockwood Music Hall in New York.


There is a Light that Never Goes Out

26 Mar
Chicago Winter. Photo by MAG

Chicago Winter. Photo by MAG

The first time I’d seen him, he was bundled in a camel overcoat, fast asleep.

I thought I was extremely lucky when I hopped on the almost empty El car at the Chicago stop and grabbed a seat during rush hour, but once the doors closed, I quickly realized why the car was deserted.  The stench coming from the corner made my eyes water and I followed the lead of the man next to me and pulled my scarf up over my nose and mouth to filter the air enough to be able to make it to the Clark/Division stop where I quickly changed cars.

I didn’t really think much about it after that.  Over the past year, I’ve become acclimated to riding public transport and have learned to adjust to the inevitable clash of cultures, and this brutal Chicago winter has made me even more aware of the challenges faced by the city’s poor and homeless residents.   The CTA became a refuge from the subzero temperatures, and to their credit, the CTA employees who run the trains did their best to shepherd the all-day riders onto one car in order to keep an eye on people and make sure no one froze to death.

Last week, I saw him again.

I recognized the tattered camel overcoat, and the smell.  As he walked the platform the crowd of people parted and gave him a wide berth.  When he found a bench to settle down on, the man sitting there got up and moved ten feet away.  Everyone on the platform turned their backs and looked away as if not looking would make the man – and the smell – disappear.  I wanted to look away, too, but I’d just written my last blog entry about how I was going to smile at strangers and help when I could, so I looked.

The man sat on the bench fiddling with a pair of ripped gloves that barely covered his fingers, a tattered black plastic bag at his feet.  He stared at the ground as he tugged his coat, pulling it more tightly around his body, as I debated about what I should do.  And then in an instant, I knew.

I walked over and leaned down close enough to say, “Good morning, sir.”  Startled, the man looked up and then looked away quickly.

Taking a deep breath, I continued, “Have you had breakfast?”

He looked back up, confused for a moment, and asked, “What?”

I repeated, “Have you had breakfast yet?”

He ducked his head and gestured toward the black bag, “Not yet, but I’m going to have a bite soon.”

I reached into my messenger bag and pulled out the PBJ sandwich that I’d packed before I left the apartment that morning and offered it to him, saying, “It’s just PBJ, but you’re more than welcome to it.”

He smiled a little and replied, “Oh no, ma’am, I’m fine.  I’ve got breakfast in this here bag. But thank you.”

My first impulse was to press further and make him take the sandwich, but I quickly understood what he was saying and backed off, tucking the sandwich back into my bag.

Sometimes preserving one’s dignity trumps hunger.

I smiled at him, and asked a question that I would spend the next few days kicking myself for asking, “Do you need anything else, sir?”

What kind of idiot question was that?  Of course he needing something else.  He needed a lot of things, but since he’d refused the sandwich I didn’t know what else to offer and I didn’t want to insult him by assuming I did.

He smiled back at me, and replied, “Oh no, I’m fine, ma’am.  Thank you.”

As I looked at him and nodded, he lifted his head and looked right into my eyes as he smiled in a way that could only be described as serene and said, “And God bless you, ma’am.  God bless you.”

I returned his smile and his blessing, and then stepped on the train leaving him sitting on the bench.

As the car sped down the tracks I felt sad for a moment because I hadn’t been able to do anything for the man.  I hadn’t been able to give him anything or help in any measurable way.

And then I thought about the way he’d looked me in the eye, raising his head and smiling as he blessed me.

Maybe the greatest gift we can offer another person is the dignity of being seen.


21 Mar
Chicago Night. Photo by MAG

Chicago Night. Photo by MAG

I can’t stop thinking about L’Wren Scott.

I didn’t exactly run in her social circle. I never met her, wore her fashion designs or even followed her career, other than to take note of her name in fashion magazines.  I didn’t even know that she was Mick Jagger’s partner.

What haunts me is that at 49, for reasons unclear to those closest to her, she chose to end her life, and, according to news reports, she did it in a way that reflected her well-mannered reputation – by asking her assistant to drop by in the morning rather than “bothering” or “inconveniencing” anyone.

By all accounts, Ms. Scott had a happy relationship with Mr. Jagger, and her business, though going through the normal ups and downs of all burgeoning businesses, seemed to be heading for success with the signing of a $250,000 contract to collaborate with Banana Republic.  This week her friend, reporter Cathryn Horyn, wrote in a New York Times tribute entitled “Memories of a Friend, a Teacher, and a Fighter” that Scott was under a great deal of pressure to make her clothing line successful, and that in a tense conversation Horyn told Scott she needed to “give herself a time limit to resolve matters or get out. Putting her health in jeopardy because of stress was not worth it…” Scott did not like – or heed – the advice, and continued to strive for success.

It’s this – and more – that makes me grieve for a woman I don’t know.

There’s no way of knowing what was going through her mind at the moment she decided to end her life, but I understand why she might have felt like it was the only solution, and that deeply disturbs me.

It’s scary to be a strong, intelligent, ambitious, aging woman in this society.  So many people depend on you, and if you are successful, it’s usually because your over-achieving perfectionist tendencies have pushed you past your fears to the point where you jump in and make it work – at all costs.  Whether it’s being successful in your education, your career, your health, your marriage, your child rearing, your athletic achievements, or your hobbies and interests, the drive toward excellence can leave even the strongest of women questioning their abilities.

Age makes it even more difficult because at a certain point you start to question all of your choices – past and present.

I say this because at 47, I find myself very far away from what I was educated to do and facing a number of health issues that never even crossed my mind at 27 or even 37.  My salary is far below the level of what I should be making, given my education level (and student loan debt) and abilities, and I’m paying off debts that I accrued for living expenses and health insurance in my past life.  I’ve managed to put my massive student loans in forbearance as I have tried to land jobs with pay that would allow me to afford to pay the $958.00 a month that the loan company is asking for, but those days are soon coming to an end – even if I haven’t landed a job with an adequate salary.  These new health challenges add a whole new level of stress to the money mix, but there’s no way to avoid them because right now they’re not terribly serious but if I ignore them, they’ll cost me much more in the long run, both financially and physically.

And it all reminds me that I’m not getting any younger

Only my family and a few close friends know what’s weighing on me – until now.

I say this, not because I am looking for sympathy or a handout or an excuse, I say this because even though her life is none of my business, I think I understand what might have been going through L’Wren Scott’s mind that night, and I have to wonder if maybe we should be making these thoughts other people’s business.

I understand how wonderful and scary it feels to be someone who other people look to for support and stability.  It’s a lot of responsibility.  I understand the weight of trying to be a cheerful role model and avoid showing how scared and alone you feel because other people are relying on you to be the strong one.  I understand how humiliating and shameful it feels to wonder how your finances, health, [or fill in the blank] have gotten so out of your control, and to be afraid to ask for help because then everyone will definitely know what a failure you really are.  They’ll know you’re a fraud and that everything you’ve accomplished has been nothing but accidental luck.  And I know many, many other women feel like this, as well.

But here’s where Ms. Scott and I differ.

I hear this message, but I don’t buy into it because I’m fortunate that I have people in my life who I can let down my guard with and show all the ugly unlovable parts of myself to.  I’m fortunate that they love me and offer help even when I’m at my absolute most stubborn (because I’m positive that I am a total failure, that everyone else is doing it “right,” and that if I would stop being so damn lazy and just work a little harder I could overcome all the obstacles and manage everything my own big self),  and I’m so very, very fortunate that they step forward and offer it despite my incredibly high walls and fierce defenses.

It makes me deeply sad and unbelievably angry that the world lost yet another generous, loving, kind, intelligent, creative woman this week because in that one brief moment, she didn’t believe she could ask for help, and because no one was able to reach out and offer in time.

In their recent Top 40 pop hit, Pompeii, the British group Bastille asks, “How am I gonna be an optimist about this?”

Here’s how…

I’m going to use this as an opportunity to reach out to others and let them know I’m available.  I’m going to pay attention to the people close to me, and I’m going to let them know how much they mean to me on a more regular basis.  I’m going to smile at strangers and offer to help when I can.  In other words, I’m going to try harder to be the change I want to see in the world.

And maybe by helping others, I’ll remind myself that I’m worthy of being helped, too.

Go Your Own Way

23 Aug
Chicago living 2013 - photo by MAG

Chicago living 2013 – photo by MAG


The older I get, the less I see the world in absolutes.

What I’ve come to realize over the past few years is that everything comes down to perception.

My whole life I’ve struggled with trying to do the “right thing” – to be moral, upstanding, understanding, kind, and sympathetic to all different views and experiences.  I haven’t always been successful, and in fact, many times I’ve failed miserably.  The problem has been in that in my attempts to accommodate others, I’ve often ignored my own needs and ended up doing things that weren’t good for me in order to ensure that other peoples’ perceptions of me weren’t negative.

I’m not alone.  I know many people who’ve done the same thing and ended up in situations that they didn’t want to be in simply because they were trying to do the right thing.

It can be agonizing to allow your conscience to dictate actions that run counter to what your heart tells you is right.  And it’s even worse when those actions leave you feeling empty and alone.

About five years ago, I took the first step towards learning how to say no to things that I didn’t want to do when I said no to finishing a Ph.D. dissertation.  For a number of reasons, I had stepped away from the project and when my mentor came back and told me that the program in which I’d done my course work would be closing at the end of the next school year, I knew I had to make a last ditch effort to finish what I’d started.

I laid out a plan for finishing the project, and set to work revising a book length dissertation that I’d been away from for several years.  I knew I was in trouble about two weeks into the process when I began having to schedule an hour before I started writing in order to cry.  I didn’t want to finish the project.  I’d moved on in my life, and the Ph.D. was no longer important to me, but everyone around me encouraged me to “just finish it!” And because I could see their point – and respected their perspectives – I continued to try.

The days became more and more dreadful as I continued to work on the project until one day I found myself wishing that something terrible would happen to me just so I could stop writing and not be viewed as a quitter.

The next day, before I began writing, I asked myself, if no one else were involved what would I want?  What would make me happy?

And then I asked myself the really difficult question – why?  Why was I finishing this project?

When I began to answer my own questions with painful honesty, I saw a pattern emerge.  I was working to finish the dissertation because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone.  I didn’t want anyone to think I was a quitter.  I didn’t want others to think less of me because I didn’t have the title “Dr.” in front of my name.

When I realized that everything I was doing was about trying to alter the perceptions of others, I made a choice to stop.  It was one of the most agonizing decisions I’ve ever made because I felt like I was letting everyone down.  There were many who thought I was absolutely foolish for stopping and some who were profoundly sad and disappointed that I didn’t finish.

However, there were a few people who got it.  Dr. Michael Largey was the first one.  He’d been my teacher, my mentor, and my friend for most of my graduate career.  He was the one who first told me that when other people are critical of a choice I’ve made, it’s often because they’re trying to reinforce the choices they’ve made.

When I called to tell him I wasn’t going to finish, he expressed his sadness, and then said, “This doesn’t negate one bit of the work you’ve already done and contributed to the field, Mary.  It just means you’ve chosen a different path.”  In that moment, it became clear that I was making the right choice for myself, no matter how irrational it seemed to others.  Other people weren’t going to live my life, and making choices as if they were was a mistake – for me.

This doesn’t mean I don’t have moments when I regret making that choice.  I do.

In fact, as I find myself working in the luxury retail business, I find myself questioning my choice on a daily basis.  I miss academia.  I miss teaching.  I miss being in an environment where education is the priority. I regret not earning the degree – and the prestige and paycheck that accompany it. If I look at it from a negative perspective, I’m living in a less-than-great part of Chicago in a small studio apartment while I work a dead-end retail job.

But if flip it and look at things from a positive perspective, I’m living in a culturally diverse neighborhood in a beautiful apartment that has given me the opportunity to streamline my life, and I have a job in which I earn a regular paycheck and that gives me the freedom to spend my free time writing and exploring things that interest me.

I made a conscious choice to stop doing something that was making me miserable, and I changed my life.  I moved to Chicago.  I’ve met and worked with some amazing people, and I’ve learned more than I ever dreamed I could have.

My perception has made all the difference.

Girl on Fire

7 Aug
Chicago Arrival April 2013 - photo by MAG

Chicago Arrival April 2013 – photo by MAG

I love walking through fire.

My entire life has been about pushing myself toward the heat. I’m not one to cautiously put my hand out and gauge the temperature, instead, I’m the one who throws my shoes in the corner believing that I can walk on burning coals.

There have been a thousand times that I’ve made it part way across a bed of burning embers only to look down and realize I am walking on a surface that is literally hot enough to leave blisters. But at that point, I know I’ve gone too far to turn back and that my only choice is to stand still or keep moving.

I always keep moving.

In the past year, I’ve walked many barefooted miles on a surface as hot as July asphalt, and I’ve wondered just how hot it has to get before I’ll stop and grab my shoes.

In October, I left my teaching position to take a full-time job with a luxury retail department store. Many people thought I was crazy to leave teaching, but I knew, at the time, it was the right choice for me, and although I miss my students every day, I am not sorry I made the change.

In February, I applied for a sales job in Chicago and spent most of March driving back and forth for interviews.  At the beginning of April, I was offered the job, accepted it, sold my furniture, shed a good deal of my past, boxed what was left and moved – in two weeks.

For the past four months, I’ve been living with J. in her beautiful Chicago digs while I’ve worked on getting settled in this amazing city.  I’ve found an apartment and will be moving in on August 15.  I sold my car and now enjoy all of the benefits (and challenges) of relying on the CTA, and I love it.  I’ve interviewed for a promotion, realized it wasn’t the right position for me at the time, and was relieved that it went to someone else (and thrilled about the person who was offered the position – truly the best candidate!).  I’ve been on a few dates, and made some new friends.

In other words, in one year, I’ve managed to change my entire life – again.

I realize I’m incredibly fortunate in the sense that I’m at a point in my life when, as a single woman with no dependents, I am completely and totally free to make choices about my life, my career and my living arrangements – income notwithstanding.  It’s not that my life is all sunshine and lollipops, there are plenty of challenges and frustrations, but I’ve come to realize that most of those are my own choice and that if I really don’t like what’s going on, I am free to make different choices.

Scary, but true.

For example, I made a conscious choice to rent a studio apartment rather than pay more for a one-bedroom.  My reasoning was not only that it would keep costs to a minimum, but also that I don’t actually want to acquire and maintain the furniture needed to fill a one bedroom apartment.  It feels odd to say that since I’ve lived my entire adult life in apartments that had “appropriate” furnishings, but once I’d asked what I actually want, I realized that I’d be happy with a convertible couch in a small space.

I’d rather spend the money on experiences rather than things – this time around.

In the coming months, I’m going to be setting foot on the coals again as I explore employment options. I know there is something out there that is a better fit than what I’m doing right now, but I know that in order to find it I have to exercise patience and persistence, and I have to be willing to take the chance that I might get burned in the process.

But I’ve found that anything worth having is worth the risk.

I haven’t given up on living in New York City.  Oh no.  In fact, this move to Chicago has made me even more determined to find a way to get to NYC.

But I’ve got some business to take care of, and a plan of action that I need to create.

Through patience and persistence

And with calloused feet.

I will arrive – eventually.

Christmas in New York (2012)

13 Nov

Saks Fifth Avenue, NYC – photo by NYC Insider Guide

I won’t be in NYC for Christmas this year, but professional changes are afoot and I’m closer to NYC than I’ve been since I started writing this blog – next year may just be the year!

Meanwhile, it’s time to pull together the yearly list of NYC Christmas happenings!

1. Rockefeller Christmas Tree Lighting - Wednesday, November 28, 2012

It’s the 80th tree to be lit in Rockefeller Square, and this year the tree will be lit with more than 300,000 energy efficient LED lights making the celebration both traditional and forward thinking!

2. Radio City Christmas Spectacular

The Rockettes kick off the Christmas season is high style!!

3. Department Store Holiday Window Displays 

Bergdorf Goodman holiday window – photo by Ricky Zehavi for Bergdorf Goodman

Bloomingdale’s and Lord & Taylor  unveiled their windows on Tuesday, November 13.  Barney’s showed off their “Electric Holiday” video and talked with Sean James, Christie’s Vice President of Managed Services, about how they made the magic happen.  Macy’s and Henri Bendel revealed their windows on Thursday, November 15.  The grand prize goes to Bergdorf Goodman’s beautiful holiday windows inspired by the Great Gatsby and the “roaring 20s” era.

4. Holiday Markets, Shops and Fairs

As usual, there are a large number of wonderful places to buy unique holiday gifts in New York City!  Most of the markets and shops open up around November 14, and stay open until the end of December.

5. New York Botanical Gardens Holiday Train Show

Within the enchanting setting of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, model trains zip over bridges and past replicas of New York landmarks made of plant parts such as nuts, bark, and leaves. Show favorites include the original Yankee Stadium, Statue of Liberty, and Brooklyn Bridge.

This year visitors will get an insider’s look at how the replicas are constructed. Models in different stages of completion will show how a structure destined for the Holiday Train Show is framed and begins taking shape through the addition of plant material. Photos, interpretive panels, tools, and supplies help tell the story of how the magic comes together.

6. Winter’s Eve at Lincoln Square

On Monday, November 26, 2012 the Lincoln Square Business Improvement District and presenting sponsor Time Warner will host the Thirteenth Annual Winter’s Eve at Lincoln Square – New York City’s largest holiday festival! Winter’s Eve kicks off with a neighborhood tree lighting ceremony with world renowned singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega, cast members of Avenue Q, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, WABC-TV’s Sade Baderinwa, and special guest Laurie Berkner from 5:00pm – 6:00pm. Winter’s Eve continues through the evening and features free entertainmentfood tastingsin-store activities and shopping around and about this colorful and vibrant neighborhood.

7. Macy’s 86th Annual Thanksgiving Day Parade

The parade that needs no explanation!

8. New Year’s Eve Times Square Ball Drop Gala

Towering 22 and 23 stories above the million or so partiers on 7th Avenue and Broadway below, the Sentry Center offers a commanding view of the incredible festivities in Times Square and the famous Times Square Waterford Crystal ball itself. You can watch the crowds as they gather in the streets outside while you enjoy an open bar, hors d’oeuvres and desserts, DJ dance music and of course, the view to end all views! At midnight the ball drop,fireworks and confetti will create the perfect backdrop scenery for welcoming in the New Year in Times Square.

I won’t be able to join in the festivities this year, but I remain optimistic that 2013 will be the year I celebrate Christmas in New York!

Happy Holidays to all!


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