SMILING FACES, SOUR CHERRIES – Marilyn Armstrong

Bad days are like sour cherries. Even in a great batch of fruit, you hit some duds. As you munch, you’re going to get some berries that are overripe, sour, or bitter. You bite into them, make a face, and put them aside. You don’t eat them because they don’t taste good.

Life is like this. Day follows day. Some days suck.

The past couple of years have been difficult. Too many bad days, too many days of feeling helplessly enraged by events far beyond my control. Too much anger in me and in the air and all around. Too many prices going up while our incomes never change.

I suppose I could have smiled on through, but I didn’t want to, any more than I felt like eating sour cherries. I had a right to be angry and saw no reason to pretend otherwise.

Was I wrong?

I don’t think so. People who care about us will cut us some slack. Leave us emotional space to get over what’s bothering us and what’s more, they should. You’d do it for them, wouldn’t you?

The whole “stay positive” thing is out of control. If the proponents of permanent smiles are to be taken seriously, no one will ever frown again. No tears, no sadness, no anger. Ever. There will be one acceptable emotion. Happiness. We will all wear a Happy Face. Happy, happy, happy. No matter what. Has anyone read or seen The Stepford Wives?

Original 1960 George of the Jungle cartoon

So, what’s your problem? Losing your home to foreclosure? Got cancer? Heart Disease? No job? No prospects? Don’t be mad or sad. You’ll be fine. No matter what those doctors are saying, no matter that you don’t have a place to live. Or a life. Or a future.

According to the proponents of Happy Face, no problem is so big it can’t be overcome with a positive attitude and a bright smile. I’m betting most of the people who believe in Happy Face have never confronted an intractable problem. One day, their fake smiles will catch up with them. They will crash and burn. The corners of their mouths will turn down and their faces will shatter on impact.

I’m not suggesting we all walk around sneering, sulking, and grumpy, but we need to be allowed to express what we feel. Otherwise, life becomes a total fake.

PEOPLE SAY THE NICEST THINGS! – Marilyn Armstrong

How often have you wondered whether you should say “thank you” or punch that person in the mouth? Insults I understand, but the compliments that really aren’t, baffle me. Is it personal ambivalence? Is it possible they don’t understand the difference between a compliment and meanness? Or, for that matter, an insult?

As a child, my mother comforted me with her classic lines. Somewhere in my head, I can still hear her. A lonely (probably odd) child, it took me a long time to find my social self. Mom would reassure me in her special way: “There’s someone for everyone,” she told me. “Even you.”

Then there was the clothing my mother made for me. It was gorgeous, fashionable. Far better quality than the other girls wore. The Mean Girls are nothing new and my schools were full of them. “Eww! Where did you get that ugly dress?” In later years, I realized their clothing was totally tacky, but at nine or ten, I didn’t get it.

As a young woman, I put on a lot of weight. Before I got rid of that hundred and fifty pounds, there were some great lines from friends who knew the perfect words to brighten my day: “You dress really nice for a fat girl” and “I don’t think of you as REALLY fat.” And let’s not forget “You are the first person of Jewish persuasion I’ve ever met.” Were they living in a fish tank or was it merely Uxbridge? Needless to say, Garry and I are THE integration for the town.

Later on, no longer fat, compliments have streamed in nonstop: “I thought you were a nun. Don’t you own anything that isn’t black?”

My all-time favorite came from the woman who was unsuccessful in marrying my first husband. Had he lived longer, she might have worn him down. She was baffled by my apparent popularity with men. “I’m very nice to them,” I said. “I make them feel special and loved.” There was more to it than that, but that was plenty. Snarkiest woman who ever trod the earth.

“I do that too,” she whined. (No, she didn’t.) “But,” she continued, getting ever more nasal, “How come they marry you?” I probably could have come up with a good line of my own.

Finally, the clincher. After I published my book, “It was much better than I expected.” What were you expecting?

Classic back-handed Compliments for every occasion:

“You look great, for your age.”

“I love your new hairstyle! It suits you so much better.”

“That’s such a difficult degree, I never thought you’d study that.”

“You look so good in photos, you always pose the same way.”

“That’s a wonderful photograph, you must have a really fancy camera.”

“I wish I could just let my kids watch TV all day like you do.”

“You have such a lovely smile, you don’t even notice the acne.”

In 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attempted to compliment Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (a woman) in a speech at Dhaka University on her terrorism policy.

“I am happy that Bangladesh Prime Minister, despite being a woman, has declared zero tolerance for terrorism,” Modi said.

It’s even better when it goes international.

ONCE IN A LIFETIME – Marilyn Armstrong

I don’t envy much. I’ve never needed the biggest house or the fastest car. Fashion doesn’t tempt me and success for me has always meant having enough. Spare would be nice, but enough will do. I don’t need popularity. A few good friends and some companionable other acquaintances are just fine.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

But you, over there? Yes, you. Young person, with your flexible body and the spring in your step. I bet you can sleep a whole night without having to take “something for the pain.” I bet you still have all your original parts too. No silicone implants or valves from other creatures. That must be really great. A spine that isn’t encrusted by calcification. A digestive system that will handle whatever you throw into it … and at your age, probably that’s all sorts of weird stuff. I hope you get over that. Stomachs are important. They don’t stay tolerant forever.

And feet! Oh, how glorious! You can run, jump, walk. Your eyes are clear and bright and you can focus your camera without special glasses. How delightful. I remember when I could do that.

It’s not envy. That would imply you’ve got something I want to take from you. It’s just that you are young and healthy. Your beauty is in your vitality and the joy I see you take in the simple acts of daily life. It’s not envy. It’s more wanting to turn back my own clock. Oh, what I’d give for a single day of being completely healthy and pain-free.

On the horse

I hope you treasure what you have. I didn’t realize how much it would change and how quickly it would happen. I never expected to be what I am now. In my imagined future, I was just as you are now, but with a little gray in my hair. Otherwise, I’d be perhaps a bit slower. I want a day as I was so I can treasure it and remember how it feels to walk with a spring in my step, eat an ice-cream, run across the grass, ride a horse.

Treasure what you have, youngsters. It’s worth more than gold. If it goes away, no earthly treasure can buy it back. Take care of yourself. Hoard your riches. You’ll need them on the road ahead.

FEARLESS – Marilyn Armstrong

Just as pain warns our bodies that something is wrong, fear warns our brains to be cautious. Excessive or unreasoning fear can cripple us, make us unable to do anything at all. Phobias can eliminate some activities entirely.

75-MountainsStream-HP-1

If you are terrified of heights, sky-diving and mountain climbing are likely to be non-starters. If you are scared to death of insects, forget that jungle exploration trip down the Amazon!

But normal fear based on a sensible understanding of a situation keeps us from doing dumb stuff. From climbing that rickety ladder, from diving off the cliff into the rocky, shallow water below.

I think, in the context of my life, I have done many things others might have thought dangerous, but weren’t. All the dangerous things in my life were medical and happened to me, not because of me.

I can’t think of anything I would have done — that I wanted to do — but rejected because of fear. I pretty much did what I wanted. On the whole, it worked out fine. What didn’t work out?

I had terrible judgment about men until I finally got my head together. I was stupidly trusting of people and sadly, I think I still am stupidly trusting. These days, at least I try to do the research before I get ripped off. And, I’ve been excessively generous to people who did not deserve it.

Fear never entered the equation, but maybe it should have. My problems generally involved a failure to think things through. Being smart doesn’t mean you actually use your brains.

A NOSE JOB FOR MOM – Marilyn Armstrong

I don’t remember how many times my mother told me this story, or how many times I have told it to you. It bears retelling.

At age 22

My mother, like many young women of her generation, had wanted to attend high school. And college. But the family was poor, and there were many mouths to feed. In the end, she had to quit school after seventh grade to take a job. She worked as a bookkeeper. At 14, my mother was respectable. Also naïve and innocent.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

The first place she worked was in a music publishing house on the Lower East Side where she had grown up. She was there for seven or eight years and finally decided to get a better job.

Immigrant children had trouble breaking into the workforce. Of course, my mother had the additional burden of being female at a time when women were not considered equal. There was no “political correctness” to protect them. My mother was blond and green-eyed. At 5 foot 7 inches, she was tall for her generation. Her English was better than most of the family since she had been born “on this side” of the Atlantic and had all her schooling in New York.

She was ushered into a room to be interviewed for the job she wanted. A few questions were asked. A form was handed to her and she filled it out. When she came to the box that asked her religion, she wrote Jewish. The interviewer looked at the application, said: “Jewish, eh?”

He tore the application to pieces and threw it in the trash in front of my mother. She said that from that day forward, she wrote Protestant so no one would ever do that to her again.Finally, I made a leap of understanding. I connected this anecdote to an aspect of my mother I never “got.” My mother wanted me to get a nose job. When I turned 16, she wanted me to have plastic surgery to “fix” my nose.

“It’s not broken,” I pointed out.

“But don’t you want it to look ‘normal’?” she asked.

“It looks fine to me,” I said. I was puzzled. My sister took her up on the offer. I continued to say “no thanks” and my nose is the original model with which I was born.

Since the last time I told this story, I realized my mother wasn’t hinting I wasn’t pretty enough. She was asking me if I wanted to not look Jewish. Remarkably, this thought had never crossed my mind. Until a few weeks ago.

I know many children of Holocaust victims refused to circumcise their sons because that’s how the Nazis identified little Jewish boys. I know non-white mothers frequently sent their light-skinned children north hoping they could “pass” for white. But never, until recently, did it occur to me my mother was trying to help me “pass” for non-Jewish.

I never considered the possibility I was turned down for a job because I was, in the immortal words of Mel Brooks, “too Jewish.” I always assumed it was me. I failed to measure up. I was too brash. My skills were insufficient.

I told Garry about my revelation. It was quite an epiphany, especially at my advanced age. I needed to share. It left me wondering how much I’d missed.

September 15, 1990 – My family at our wedding. I think most of us look a bit alike!

I told him I’d finally realized my mother’s persistent suggestion to “get my nose fixed” was an attempt to help me fit in, to not look so obviously Jewish. I had never considered anyone might not like me for other than personal reasons. I said I thought perhaps I’d been a little slow on the uptake on this one.

Garry said, “And when did you finally realize this?”

“Yesterday,” I said.

“Yesterday?” he repeated. Garry looked dumbfounded.

“Yesterday,” I assured him.

He was quiet and thoughtful. “Well,” he said. “You’re 72? That is a bit slow. You really didn’t know?” I shook my head. I really didn’t know. Apparently, everyone else got it. Except me.

I AM THE APPLE – Marilyn Armstrong

It occurred to me I needed to see my spine specialist. When you deal with chronic pain, you learn to ignore it most of the time. Unless you want to wind up addicted to pain killers, it’s your only option. It’s a practical decision. Do I want to keep participating in life? Then I have to deal with what I have to deal with. That’s the way it goes.

Mom-May1944

Long-time ago, I was doing my mother’s hair. I liked fixing her hair. Hers was easy to style. Thick, silver and just a bit wavy. I asked her to turn her head to the right, and she did. When I asked her to turn her head the other way, she said: “I can’t.”

“You can’t? Why not?”

“Because my head won’t turn that way.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“My neck is stiff.”

“Um, mom? How long has it been like this?”

She thought for a while. “Fifteen years? Something like that.”

That stopped me. Fifteen years? “Have you seen anyone about it?”

“No,” she said. “I figured I was just getting old.”

At the time, I thought her statement was bizarre. It turned out she had treatable but advanced tendonitis and it got better. She hated doctors and hospitals.

Time marched on. I’m much older now than my mother was then. I fully understand her response. When I called the doctor for an appointment, I discovered the last time I’d seen him was more than six years ago.

To be fair, I’ve had a few medical crises since then and I got distracted. Besides, I know what’s wrong with my back. It isn’t going to kill me. I’ve lived with it most of my life. I’m used to it and do my best to ignore it.

Right to left: Aunt Pearl, my Mother (Dorothy), Aunt Ehtel (Uncle Herman’s wife), and Aunt Kate.

Recently, though I’m having trouble walking, even on flat surfaces and going up and downstairs is especially difficult. It crossed my mind there might be something he could do — some medical magic — to improve me without major surgery. I already know surgery isn’t an option.

My doctor is wonderful. The best. The only doctor who can look at my spine, not gasp with horror and immediately decide I need to be rebuilt with screws, pins, and bolts. He’s a minimalist, medically speaking. I appreciate that.

I made an appointment and got lucky because there was a cancellation. It usually takes five or six months to get to see him, but I only had to wait a few weeks. He’s the king of spines in Boston, maybe in the country. I would have willingly waited six months if I had to. Of course, as soon as I made the appointment, I had to make another appointment because I need new films for my spine. I also haven’t had a CT scan (I can’t have an MRI because of the magnetic pacemaker in my chest) in six years and he isn’t can’t see much without fresh films.

I wondered how come I hadn’t processed the fact I can’t walk normally? I suppose I wasn’t paying attention. I was busy ignoring pain.

I was being my mother.

She taught me to be a soldier. She didn’t use Novocaine when she got her teeth worked on. I asked her why. She said, “Pain is good for your character.”

Tree Silhouette in B & W

She meant it. I grew up believing that giving in to pain was a weakness. To a degree, it serves me well, but sometimes it can be dangerous. If you ignore the wrong stuff, it can kill you. One needs to find balance, but that’s not easy.

Watching a documentary on Ethel Kennedy reminded me of my mother, except without the millions of dollars.

Mom was an athlete and I know she was baffled at how she wound up with such a klutzy daughter. She played tennis. She rode horses, played ice hockey. She went bob sledding. She painted, sculpted, designed and made her own clothing. She also never got past seventh grade, so she made up for it by reading everything. She had a truly voracious appetite for life and knowledge.

After a radical mastectomy, she couldn’t play tennis anymore, so she played a ferocious game of ping-pong. She played savagely. She served so hard it was more like a bullet than a ping-pong ball.

As a family, we vacationed in dinky little resorts in the Catskills where there was no entertainment. The one thing they always had was a ping-pong table. So I played against my mother.

She didn’t believe in any of that “let the kid win” stuff. She was a competitor. You won or lost. Trying hard was irrelevant because she expected nothing less. She slaughtered me.

As I got older, I played better but she still always beat me. She told me she was giving me an advantage by playing with her left hand. I knew she wrote with her right hand, so I assumed she was a rightie. Until the day my aunt told me she had always played tennis with her left hand. My mother was psyching me out. Her own daughter.

I never beat her, but I beat everyone else.

She passed me her determination to never give up, to do everything I could as well as I could. Later in life, I realized I didn’t always have to be the best. Playing a game for fun is worth something too. Another lesson learned a bit late.

The older I get, the more I remind me of my mother.

So I went to my doctor and he told me there was nothing he could do. I needed to see a pain specialist. No fix. Progressive. Irreversible. I sighed and accepted it. I hoped there was something he could do. Nope.

We all miss stuff. Some of it intentionally, more accidentally. Sometimes, I miss something important because I’m busy ignoring something else.

I am an apple. Mom was my tree. I fell, but not very far.

I REGRET NOTHING – Rich Paschall

We all have regrets, that’s for sure.  You can not lead a life without them.  You may regret your first stumble and fall — if you remember it.  You may regret dropping that toy or that cell phone.  You may regret letting go of the balloon or a house that rose dramatically in value right after you sold it.  You may regret throwing away food, furniture, or clothing.  But why cry over that?

As you grow, I guess there are plenty of things to regret.  How about the day you did not do your homework?  How about the time you got caught with your hand in the cookie jar, literally or figuratively?  How about the time you were grounded for not doing _________ (fill in the blank).

School years can be filled with regrets.  Many of them will actually have to do with getting caught, rather than what you did.  Of course, if you fell off old man Jones’ garage and broke your arm, you will probably regret that.  If you picked on someone smaller and got your butt kicked, you probably regret that too.

When you could not work up the nerve to ask Sally or Janie or Billy to the prom, you may regret it years later.  This especially stings if you find out the person you wished to ask, liked you too and was hoping you would ask him or her out.  There are a lot of friendships, especially at the high school level, they may have developed into something, if only you had the courage to move forward.

This is especially tough for gay boys and girls who feel they may be the only gay ones in their class and are afraid to approach anyone on this topic.  Recently, I learned a high school classmate was gay so I went back to look at his yearbook picture.  I wanted to see if he was the person I remembered.  He was smart, handsome — someone I would not have thought I could approach.

Adult life may be filled with a series of sorrows over decisions made.  Should you have gone to college?  If you went, did you pick the right school?  The right major?  It is easy to spend time at the fraternity parties and local bars.  Will you later wonder if studying harder would have made a difference in later life?

There was a good friend of mine through elementary and high school who also went on to the same University as me.  We took many of the same classes.  We frequently studied together.  Many times, our studies started with a trip to a deep-dish pizza place where we would order pizza and pitchers of beer.  Since deep dish pizza took a long time to make, we might get 30 to 40 minutes of studying done before the pizza was delivered.  After that, it was just pizza and beer.  I guess I don’t regret this one too much.

After college, I cultivated many groups of friends.  A lot of these friendships revolved around hanging out local bars watching sports and drinking beer.  In later years, it might involve karaoke.  We enjoyed our nights.  As I look back on those years, I am not sure I remember who came along or what occasions were special.  They were just nights out. It was more about killing time than fulfillment.

Then, of course, it would be easy to regret all the money we spent in these various places.  Some nights, we poured money over the bar just as fast as they poured drinks into our glasses.  Buying drinks for others, especially if they did not have a lot of cash, seemed like a great idea.  They probably do not remember me, just as much as I do not remember them.

dead leaves

My mother spent a lot of time in the local lounges, one in particular in my lifetime.  The time spent took up more than 50-years of her life and all of her spare money.  At these places, I am convinced she felt she made a number of deep friendships.  It was important to get to these places on Friday or Saturday night to see her “friends.”

When she had a stroke at 73, a couple came to see her once or sent a card.  After the first few weeks, over the next 16 years, we never saw any of these people.  I wonder if she regretted the time spent at the lounge. I will never know.

If you married the wrong person, you may have deep regrets. If you joined with several incompatible partners, you could pile up many regrets. Falling out with family members always leaves plenty of regrets, even when there’s nothing to be done about it. Friendships and marriages are often chosen in haste. They need to be corrected and forgiven (at least forgiving yourself) rather than regretted.

Then, there’s Edith Piaf:

The thing about regrets? There’s nothing to be gained from them. You should learn from mistakes, but regrets aren’t worth anything. You can’t get back time lost. You can’t get back money spent.  You can’t undo a painful history. There’s nothing to be gained from dwelling on mistakes.

Take the lesson. Move forward. Dump the regrets and find a more positive approach to life.


Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption

I planned each charted course

Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way.

Don’t look at yesterday when today encourages you to look ahead. You can never change what already happened. Maybe you don’t really want to. Everything you’ve done — good and bad — is part of you.

That’s true too, but not necessarily the healthiest way to go.

I’M STILL UNDER DEVELOPMENT – Marilyn Armstrong

One of the many things I learned while working for a living was “never let them know how good you really are.”

It sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. Moreover, I’ve always been more fond of family and friends than my work, except for the year I ran a newspaper in Israel. I totally loved running a newspaper. I was busy all the time, either editing, writing, looking for material, helping design the physical paper.  This was before they had software to design magazines and newspapers, so you had to literally cut and paste the pieces into place.

I wrote three regular columns under three names: the lead story as me, a cooking column, and an astrology column under various names. And if we were needed another article, I wrote that, too.


I got to interview the big guns in 1980s Israeli politics including Netanyahu who I think was Education Minister. Pretty sure. We did a very long interview about how important it was to stop using the money for “other stuff” (settlements, for example) and spend it on education. He certainly has changed a lot since the mid-80s.

Other than that, I did what I could with the skills that I had. There was only one English-language newspaper and everyone who wrote in English wanted to work there. On the other hand, there were dozens of advertisements for technical writers.

I wasn’t a technical writer, but if that was what they were hiring? I was one.

And so I got my first got a job as a technical writer working with the group at the Weizmann Institution who were designing DB-1, the predecessor to all DBs since. The first real, multi-lingual database. Except I didn’t know anything about databases. In fact, when I got the job, it was the first time I’d heard of one. I hung around the office for a few days, realized I was useless unless I got some training and ‘fessed up.

After six weeks of having database design force-fed into my brain, I could use the database and design something simple that worked. Sort of.

I learned system analysis rather than computer programming, so I never knew how to write programming though I could read it. I learned how software is designed and understood why and how it works. During my three years there — until they sold the product to IBM — I found my technical writing legs.

I was a bit of a pioneer. Breaking new ground was exciting and professionally risky. I was known, by the time I left Israel, as its best tech writer in the country. Israel was a very small market and when I went back to the States, I was a little twitchy about testing my skills in “the big time.” But it was fine. Maybe better than fine.

Except for one thing: I discovered the reward you got for being very good and very fast was more work. Not a raise or a promotion. Just work. Not even overtime.

In my first job in the U.S., I started as “the junior writer.” Eventually, the other 5 members of the department were let go or moved on until finally, there was only me. Doing the whole thing that had previously needed (?) six people.

I was handling the “work” four writers and an editor had done before me. I finally asked how come I didn’t at least get the title of “manager” and was told I was too good a writer to be promoted. Too good to be promoted? Okay, how about a raise?

I got 6%. I changed jobs and made more money. That was when I realized that I should never have let them know just how good — and fast — I was because there was nothing in it for me except more work.

I eventually got really good and ultimately got a good salary. This is exactly when the dot com market blew up. The company for which I was working went out of business between Monday (when we got the news that our backers had lost all their money and thus we had lost all of our) and Friday. A lot of small investment companies disappeared that year.

It was also the same time when big companies decided \they didn’t need tech support departments that knew enough to offer tech support. Simultaneously, they concluded no one needed a manual since customers could call Pakistan and ask questions … and get the wrong answers.

I was already getting sick and working was difficult. Garry had lost his job and Owen’s company blew up on 9/11. My income mattered. But the industry decided I and the work I did was obsolete. Ironically today, the tech writing business is resurging. It turns out that people who buy expensive stuff — like cameras — feel they are entitled to a manual. Sadly for me, I’m 20 years out of date, lack the ability to work a full-time job, and live in the middle of nowhere.


Why am I writing all this? Because Garry and I were talking last night. He said he had a burning need to succeed. Virtually nothing else mattered to him. How did I feel about work?

I said no one has a burning need to succeed as a technical writer. It’s just not that kind of job. So what DID I have? I was an incredibly good writer and insanely fast. I was a better writer than anyone else I had worked with and at least twice as fast. They got paid more, but they were men.

If I’d had the drive and business sense to move out into the big wide world and build my own company? Could I have “made it big”? I don’t know, but I didn’t do it so I’ll never know. I never liked the business side of the business world.

But damn, I was good.

FIRST, FORGIVE YOURSELF AND THE REST WILL FOLLOW – Marilyn Armstrong

One Sunday in church, Pastor’s sermon was about forgiveness. He asked everyone in the church to stand up. Then he asked those who had any enemies to sit down. Everyone sat down but one very old woman.

“You have no enemies at all?” asked Pastor.

“Not a single one,” she answered, nodding her agreement.

“Please, come up here and tell everyone how you reached such a great age without having any enemies,” said Pastor. A deacon accompanied the elderly woman to the pulpit and everyone in church applauded as she slowly made her way up the steps. The pastor adjusted the microphone.

“You must have done a lot of forgiving,” said Pastor. “Please, tell us your secret.”

The old lady smiled beatifically.

“I outlived the bitches,” she said.


Life marches on. You get older and after a while, you realize all the people you used to obsess over, the people who hurt you, are gone. By the time you pass 70, a lot of people have disappeared from your life. Good ones you loved and the evil ones you hated. The sickly ones with bad hearts.

Chickens come home to roost.

Crazy drivers meet their maker on a dark highway. Heavy drinkers, smokers, drug users find a sad end. It turns out that hating them was a waste of energy. Cancer, heart attack, and other diseases weed out people, the best and the worst, remorselessly and without no regard for personal qualities. Meanwhile, the older generation passes away, one funeral at a time.

Roaring Dam: Photo: Garry Armstrong

Time makes most of the fears and worries of living less important. It turns out, forgiveness is not about repairing relationships so you can be friends again. It’s all about letting go. Passing all that negative crap to your “higher power,” whatever that means to you. Acknowledging that you can’t fix everything and you might as well stop trying.

Realizing it’s not your job to fix it. It never was. Everyone told you that … even your mother, but you weren’t listening.

Shit happens. Some of it — unfair and unforgivable — happens to you. You can make it the center of your world and spend your life brooding and obsessing over it. Or, you can decide you won’t be defined by the worst stuff that happened to you — or the worst stuff you’ve done.

I know people who had wonderful careers full of honor and respect who lost their jobs and promptly declared themselves failures as if the one negative event — getting let go — negated everything which had gone before.

I know men and women who were abused as children who still define themselves as victims — 50 or 60 years later. They can’t let it go. I think — and I could be entirely wrong — that they are waiting for the chance to tell “the bad people” how awful they were. Get it all off their chest once and for all. The problem is, it doesn’t happen in real life. That’s movie stuff. In real life, the bad guys stay bad, never apologize, never admit they were wrong, never own up to anything.

Best choice? Love yourself. If you feel good about you, you can be pretty happy no matter what life throws at you. It’s that simple — and that difficult. If you begin the process of forgiving, forgive yourself first.

Forgive yourself for the mistakes you made, for the bad choices, the stupid decisions, the asshole(s) you married, almost married, allowed to mess with your head.

 

The jobs you screwed up, shouldn’t have taken, should have taken (but didn’t). The opportunities you blew. The unfinished manuscripts still lying dusty in the box in the basement, the unpublished stories that never went to an editor. The times you were wrong and didn’t apologize. Your failures as a parent, the books you didn’t read. All the “shoulda coulda woulda” you’ve accumulated.

If you throw it all out, you won’t eliminate all your problems. The money you don’t have won’t suddenly show up in your bank account. Youth and health won’t return. But, you don’t have to haul the past with you into the future and you can enjoy what you do have without obsessing over what you missed.

The sooner you do it, the better. Life isn’t forever, even if you live entirely on salad and never miss a day of exercise.

With a little luck, you’ll outlive the bitches.

REGRETS, I’VE HAD A FEW – Rich Paschall

But Then Again, Why Mention?

by Rich Paschall

We all have regrets, that’s for sure.  You can not lead a life without them.  You may regret that first stumble and fall, if you remember it at all.  You may regret dropping that toy.  You may regret letting go of that balloon.  You may regret throwing food on the floor.  You may also regret spilling the milk, but why cry over that?

As you grow, I guess there are plenty of things to regret.  How about the day you did not do your homework?  How about the time you got caught with your hand in the cookie jar, literally or figuratively?  How about the time you were grounded for not doing _________ (fill in the blank).

School years can be filled with regrets.  Many of them will actually have to do with getting caught, rather than what you did.  Of course, if you fell off old man Jones’ garage and broke your arm, you will probably regret that.  If you picked on someone smaller and got your butt kicked, you probably regret that too.

When you could not work up the nerve to ask Sally or Janie or Billy to the prom, you may regret it years later.  This especially stings if you find out the person you wished to ask, liked you too and was hoping you would ask him or her out.  There are a lot of friendships, especially at the high school level, that may have developed into something, if only you had the courage to move forward.

This is especially tough for gay boys and girls who feel they may be the only gay ones in their class and are afraid to approach anyone on this topic.  Recently, I learned a high school classmate was gay so I went back to look at his yearbook picture.  I wanted to see if he was the person I remembered.  He was smart and handsome and someone I would not have thought I could approach.

Adult life may be filled with a series of sorrows over decisions made.  Should you have gone to college?  If you went, did you pick the right school?  The right major?  It is easy to spend time at the fraternity parties and local bars.  Will you later wonder if studying harder would have made a difference in later life?

There was a good friend of mine through elementary and high school who also went on to the same University with me.  We took many of the same classes, not all.  We frequently studied together.  Sometimes, OK many times, our studies started with a trip to a deep dish pizza place where we would order pizza and pitchers of beer.  Since deep dish pizza took a long time to make, we might get 30 to 40 minutes of studying in before the pizza arrived.  After that, it was just pizza and beer.  I guess I do not regret this one too much.

After college I cultivated many groups of friends.  A lot of these friendships revolved around local bars to watch sports and drink beer.  In later years it might involve karaoke too.  We loved our nights out, at least we thought we did.  As I look back on those years, I am not sure I remember who came along or what occasions we enjoyed most.  They were just nights out, killing time.

Then, of course, it would be easy to regret all the money we spent at these various places.  Some nights, we poured money over the bar just as fast as they poured drinks into our glasses.  Buying drinks for others, especially if they did not have a lot of cash, seemed like a great idea.  They probably do not remember me, just as much as I do not remember them.

My mother spent a lot of time in the local lounges, one in particular in my lifetime.  The time spent took up more than 50 years of her life and all of her spare money.  At these places, I am convinced she felt she made a number of deep friendships.  It was important to get to these places on Friday or Saturday night to see her “friends.”  When she had a stroke at 73, a couple came to see her once or sent a card.  After the first few weeks, we never saw any of these people again over the next 16 years.  I did wonder if she regretted any of the time spent at the Lounge.  In her case, I just don’t know.

dead leaves

If you married the wrong person, you may have deep regrets. If you married several wrong people, I guess it could be a lot of regrets. Friendships and marriages are sometimes chosen in haste. They need to be corrected rather than regretted.

The thing about regrets? There’s nothing to be gained from them. You should learn from mistakes, but regrets aren’t worth anything. You can’t get back time lost. You can’t get back money spent.  You can’t undo painful history. There’s nothing to be gained from dwelling on mistakes. Take the lesson. Move forward. Skip the regrets.

Don’t look at yesterday when today offers you the opportunity to look forward. You can’t change what happened. Maybe you don’t really want to. Everything you’ve done — good and bad — is part of you.

Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way.

KINDNESS OF STRANGERS – Marilyn Armstrong

Israel was in turmoil. Years of bad blood between Arabs and Jews, a disastrous economic situation, and an intense heatwave which had everyone cranky and ill-tempered. It’s no wonder that most riots take place in the heat of summer.

The predominantly Arab areas were seething with resentment while the Jewish population was none too happy either. It was a rough patch, but when had it been otherwise?

Jerusalem’s diversity is part of what makes the city unique. The Jewish population is highly diverse. From secular and downright anti-religious, to ultra-Orthodox and everything in between. There are Christians of every stripe and every flavor of Islam. Bahai, Samaritans — and sects I never heard of — and more than a few wannabe Messiahs.

French Hill

I sang along with the Muzein when he called the faithful to prayer. I loved the chanting, the traditions, the clothing, the open-air markets. I loved everything and everyone, but not everyone loved me back.

The newspaper I was running was broke. We’d been going on fumes for the last few issues and it was obvious we’d be out of business and out of work very soon. We kept hoping for an angel, someone to come along and invest enough to get us well and truly launched. In the meantime, it had been weeks since we’d gotten paid.

I was doing my share, trying to keep the newspaper alive, so when someone had to take the pages to the typesetter in Givat Zeev up by Ramallah, I volunteered. I had a car. I’d been there before. Why not?

There’s a myth that Jerusalem has just one road, but it winds a lot. The theory is, if you keep driving, sooner or later you’ll get there, wherever “there” is. That’s not quite accurate. You may get close — but when I’m the navigator close may not be close enough. I have no sense of direction. When I hear the words “You can’t miss it,” I know I will miss it.

Which is how I wound up in downtown Ramallah in the middle of a minor riot in late August 1983. I didn’t know what was happening or why (exactly), but I was sure I shouldn’t be there.

ramallah-2

I was lost. No idea how to retrace my steps and get back to French Hill. Going forward wasn’t an option. I pulled to the curb and sat there, wondering what to do next.

A few moments later, two Arab gentlemen jumped into the car with me. No, I hadn’t locked the doors. If they wanted to break into my car, they might as well use the doors as break the windows. Was I about to be murdered? Abducted?

“You are lost,” the man in the front seat said.

“Oh, very much,” I agreed. The two men conferred in Arabic. I picked out a couple of words, one of them being “American.” That’s easy. It’s the same in almost every language.

“Okay,” said the man in the front seat. “You need to leave. Now.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” I responded. We swapped places. He took the wheel and drove me back to French Hill.

“You must be more careful,” he chided me. “You must not go to dangerous places.” I thanked him with all my heart. He smiled, and the two of them headed back, on foot, to Ramallah. Offering them a lift didn’t seem the thing to do.

As a final note, their act of kindness was a genuine act of bravery. They could have come to real harm for their generosity which some would have regarded as a lack of loyalty to whatever the current cause is or was. They were under no obligation to help me. Yet they did, at considerable risk to themselves.

An act of kindness by strangers and people who were, in theory, not on “my side.” People can be incredibly kind when you least expect it.

I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

NCIS AND MY PACEMAKER – Marilyn Armstrong

EPISODE: Need to Know (2012)

Alan Katzenbach, a lawyer, waits for Gibbs with his client, a chief petty officer named Leland Wiley. Wiley was busted for drugs and wants to trade his info — which he says is about national security.

It concerns Agah Bayar, the arms dealer. Gibbs is interested. Wiley comes over to talk, but grabs his heart and drops to the ground.

ncis-need-to-know

Gibbs comes for the update from Ducky. Turns out, Wiley had top security clearance and his workstation is locked down. They haven’t been able to connect him to Bayar yet.

Abby calls Gibbs to the lab. She tells him Wiley’s pacemaker was linked into a computer to monitor it. Someone hacked in and jacked his heart rate up to 400 beats per minute.

“Somebody murdered Wiley by remote control,” she says.


What does this have to do with me?

Well, glad you asked. This episode so intrigued the heart surgery team at Beth Israel Deaconess in Boston (where I had all that heart surgery in March 2014), that they decided to find out if it really could be done. One of the people that performed the experiment was my surgeon.

They did it. My surgeon did point out as far as they could tell, to actually hack a pacemaker you had to be no more than a couple of feet from it. Nonetheless, they made the manufacturer change the programming.

In theory, nobody can hack my pacemaker.

I find this comforting. Garry finds it disturbing and I suppose I can see where he’s coming from. He doesn’t like thinking about the mechanical and electronic stuff that keeps me alive. It would creep me out too, but I’m a bit of a geek.

RBB-pacemaker

I find the technology sufficiently interesting to overcome its inherent creepiness. It is creepy. However, it doesn’t matter. No matter how I feel about it, I’ve got this thing in my chest. It keeps my heart beating. If my heart would beat on its own, I wouldn’t need a pacemaker.

In the beginning, they used to stop my heart will beat without it. My heart stops beating. Talk about creepy. It is a very unpleasant — and indescribable — sensation.

The blue tooth remote functions still work. They are (in theory) more secure than they were a couple of years ago before the NCIS episode aired and the guys got curious about it. Remote functionality is important. After all, I might need a tune-up. Blue tooth lets my doctor access my pacemaker from … how far? I don’t actually know. A considerable distance, whatever that is.

Garry — again — doesn’t want to know about it. I pointed out if someone murders me, this is potentially important evidence. He would still rather not think about it.

So there we are. Too creepy?

I can feel my pacemaker. It sits on my left shoulder. The outline is visible. I can feel the wires, the connections through my skin. I find it impossible to ignore. I might as well find it interesting. It’s part of me, after all.

And no matter what, I will always have that Pacemaker because, after all those tests, my heart absolutely will not beat without it.

OLD TIMEY RELIGIOUS MUSIC – Marilyn Armstrong

For a woman who is essentially religiously neutral, firmly clinging to my position of “no opinion” like a limpet on a wet rock with the tide coming in — I really love church music. I cannot help myself. Play me some Christmas carols and I am singing (croaking?) along with heartfelt enthusiasm.

Blame my elementary school teachers, not to mention all those little Christian girls with whom I grew up.

rhyming HallelujahMy parents neglected to mention I was Jewish. They failed to mention religion at all for the first 8 years of my life. I knew we didn’t have a Christmas tree. I knew my mother didn’t eat ham or bacon, but the rest of us ate it and my father cooked it.

I wanted Christmas and felt deprived every year when my friends had millions of presents and a big tree and we had Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, two electrified plastic statues in our front window — the family’s nod to the holidays.

No menorah. No synagogue. No indication of any kind of holiday in progress except for our two plastic friends.

I didn’t know what a Jew was. I knew what a Catholic was because several friends went to St. Gerard’s, the nearby Catholic school. I knew what nuns and priests were. I could say the rosary, because Mary taught me.

I knew what Lutheran was, because Carol got time off every Wednesday afternoon to go for religious instruction. I had heard about Sunday School. And Mass. And services.

One day, at school, they showed a series of films designed to teach us to not be anti-Semites or racists.

It was a strip film with sound. Joe was on a trapeze trying to do a flying somersault. The catcher, clearly Jewish because he had a big star of David on his chest, was the catcher. But Joe, a blatant anti-Semite, wouldn’t take Joe’s hands and fell to the floor. Splat.

“Don’t be a shmo, Joe.
Be in the know, Joe.
Be in the know, and you won’t fall on your face.”

Then we got a lecture on being nice to Jews. I went home and asked my parents, “What’s a Jew?”

Mom turned to Dad and said these immortal words, “Albert, we have to do something about this.”

Shortly thereafter, my peaceful Sunday mornings were interrupted by boring classes at the nearby synagogue. I would come home pumped up on bible stories which my mother, the atheist, would promptly debunk. It wasn’t long before I was allowed to stop attending. It was clearly not “my thing.” If they’d let me out on Wednesday afternoon at 1 pm like the Christian kids, I’d have gone with more enthusiasm, just to get off from school early.

That being said, my enthusiasm for church music remains unabated. I love hymns, the organ, choirs. The blending of voices tugs at my heartstrings. I sang my heart out in the glee clubs of childhood and the All-City Chorus (Mozart’s Requiem — I was an alto) in High School. And in college I was a music major.

It made my mother more than a little nervous as I wandered around the house singing the Mass in Latin. I did explain to her that the history of Western music is church music. From plainsong to Hayden, Bach, Mozart and all the others who have followed.

Organized religion is the primary consumer of choral music. I am by no means the only person who can be lured into a church by a good choir.

little church 33

If Sunday morning services were all music without the rest of the yada, yada, I’d be there. From gospel to the local children’s choir, it’s all beautiful to me.

I suppose finally discovering I was of Jewish origin should have grounded me somehow, but it didn’t. Not really. It set me on a much longer path that I am still walking. Forever the seeker, I have learned it’s the journey that matters.

Destination unknown.

WHO SAID LIFE IS FAIR? – Marilyn Armstrong

With shock and grief, I hear the wailing of betrayed youth. They have made the awfulest Big Discovery.


Life is unfair.


You work hard, perform brilliantly yet wind up bruised and forgotten. Then again, you might find yourself famous, rich, and covered with honors. It’s not cause and effect, though we like to think it is … until the economy, health, or other people betray those beliefs.

The younger me knew — with 100% certainty — that work, talent, ambition and determination were magic. The older me learned you can do everything right, follow all the rules and then some, and it still doesn’t work out.

bankruptcy

I did it all. I worked hard and with more than due diligence. I smiled when I wanted to snarl to keep that critical positive attitude. I was creative. I gave it my all.

I did okay, but while I worked hard and put in overtime, I watched the suck-ups, second-raters, and those who worked cheaper if not better, move past me. I came in early and stayed late while they went to meetings and took long lunches. If I’d gone to more meetings, would that have changed the outcome?

Somehow, I doubt it. I can’t be someone I’m not, though I sure did try. It’s out of my hands. I’m a passenger on this bus and it’s a long ride ahead of me (I hope).

Former belief: Play by The Rules, give it your all. You are bound to “make it.”

Current belief: Do the best you can and hope for a bit of luck and a boss who really likes you. Oh, and a company that won’t go bankrupt before you get paid. If not, enjoy life. It’s the only one you’ve got.

We tell our kids if they do it all right they will get that pot of gold. We don’t tell them that work sucks. Most of their bosses will be morons who know less than they do and have less talent.

But we also were right. They will earn a reward: the satisfaction of knowing they did their best. It’s a big reward. Everyone can count on it and no one can take away.

We have to try. If we succeed and for a while, we get a piece of the good stuff, at least enough to feel it wasn’t a waste of time, that’s great. For some, it just doesn’t happen. Bad luck? Wrong attitude? Crappy economy? Not quite enough talent?

And you have to know that trying may not be enough. You also need talent and luck and good timing.

Sometimes, you need a better agent.

I no longer believe in inevitable triumph. There’s always a chance you’ll make it to the top and it’s fantastic if the magic works. For me, realism has replaced optimism. Everyone’s best achievement is living up to our best self. If this also turns into a success, I’ll wear your t-shirt. If not, this is an achievement no one can ruin. You can’t control the world, but you can control yourself.

Life’s a roller coaster. You’re up and then you’re down. Screaming, crying, laughing … you go where the rails take you. Life will surprise you and sometimes a loss becomes a winner and will give you moments of unimagined joy.

Rejoice when times are good, but if you must, cope with the darkness. You can learn a lot in the dark.

DON’T PUT ME IN CHARGE! – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Ruler

Let me start by saying I do not want to rule the world. I don’t even want to rule this house. Not even a tiny corner of it. I get exhausted trying to manage dogs, convince them to go out to do their business and not steal my socks.

So if you give me a superpower, I might use it to eliminate us. What an annoying bunch we are.

As custodians of the earth, we’ve failed. We have poisoned the water and air, brutalized the earth, slaughtered the wildlife, cut down forests, dammed rivers, and polluted everything with our garbage.

We haven’t been any better to each other than we’ve been to the animals we’ve driven to extinction or near-extinction. We’ve murdered each other and stolen the darkness. We’ve made privacy a joke, eliminated alone time, and somehow, lost respect for each other and life. If we could start over, maybe we’d do a better job, but I don’t see a “redo” in the works.

Autumn at home

If indeed we were chosen to care for this world, we have done a poor job. Personally, I’d make a terrible ruler. Humans cannot be trusted. Even when we try hard, we just don’t seem to get it. I think we weren’t meant to be in charge. We need a better leader, one with the power to make things right and keep them that way.

See? I told you.

Don’t put me in charge. You won’t like it and I know I wouldn’t.

A DANCE IN A GRAVEYARD – Marilyn Armstrong

The year I was fifteen, I started my senior year of high school. That September (1962), while I was sitting and watching television, I found a rather big, hard lump near my right ankle. I checked the other leg. No lump there. It was a painless lump. Mom had me visiting a surgeon just a couple of days later.

It turned out to be non-malignant, an osteochondroma. It was, however, pretty big. Big enough so in the short time between seeing the doctor and getting into the hospital, it more than doubled in size.

It had thoroughly wrapped itself around my fibula and the surgeon had to remove a piece of bone and replace it with a pin. I was in no mortal danger, but I was going to be on crutches for at least half a year.

Jamaica High School was (is) huge. Five stories including the basement (swimming pool level) and top floor — the tower where the choir and chorus rehearsed. There were no elevators. No handicapped access. It was also extremely crowded, no place for someone on crutches.

High School, really

Thus I came to be assigned a home tutor. I was not her only client and for reasons of her own, she decided to introduce me to another of her clients.

Mary was older than me, 18 years old. Which, at 15, seemed very mature from my perspective. She was a schizophrenic at a time when the drugs to control schizophrenia had not been invented. She was not at all violent. In fact, she was wonderfully sweet, a brilliant artist … and her view of the world was, to say the least, unique.

She loved cemeteries. Especially at night. One night, we went to see Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? which had just been released.

“Would you like to go?” she asked.

“Sure, why not.” I was always up for a movie. But this one, I didn’t much like. I still don’t. Just … not my cup of tea. Too creepy.

But my night of creepiness was far from over because, after the movie, Mary invited me to visit one of her favorite places … the local cemetery. Through which she happily danced, kissing each of the stones while declaring that these were the happiest of all souls.

Thus began my interest in cemeteries and tombstones. And the end of my brief relationship with Mary. I’m pretty strange in my own way, but that was a bit much for me.

We have great cemeteries here in New England. Old ones with wonderful tombstones, amazing old inscriptions. Come visit.