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.

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.

WALLOWING IN THE PAST – Marilyn Armstrong

An endless recitation of woes are giving me migraines. It’s not that I lack sympathy. More like I’m emotionally exhausted. So many people are stuck in a pit of youthful misery. Bad childhoods, terrifying ex-marriages or other horrible relationships. Or worse, they want to write. They need to write, but they can’t. The words won’t come.

So don’t write. It’s not as if you are legally obligated to be a writer. If it isn’t working out, give it up. Do something else. Anything else.

Don’t they want to move on?

Apparently not. The quagmire of despair has become a comfortable, homey place. So they set up a desk, computer, and light and there they stay. Some of these bloggers continue exploring the depths of their suffering for hundreds — thousands? — of posts. Many are closing in on Social Security yet are still suffering from childhood trauma. So much for time casting a rosy haze over the past. Even if you haven’t solved your problems, it doesn’t mean you can’t just let them go. There will be new tragedies down the road and plenty more misery to come. I can pretty much guarantee it.

There ought to be an official cutoff date at which point you are required to close the book on whatever dreadful experience life dealt you during your wretched childhood and ghastly former relationships. Or at least after the passage of one full lifetime, you should be required to find some other subject about which to write.

we are not our mistakes

Sometimes I think it’s because they’ve found an audience for their posts about suffering and it’s their fallback position. Can they really be enmeshed in the same memories after thirty or forty years have passed?

I know lots of people who were abused as children. Hell, I wrote a book about it and because of that, I had total strangers telling me their stories. I suppose I deserved it. If you write a book on the subject and people read it, you can’t blame them for thinking you might be interested.

Now, let’s add in all those who had abusive relationships as adults. Isn’t that everyone? Who hasn’t had a terrible relationship or three? I plead guilty on all charges, your honor.

It was my first husband (before you ask, he died) who strongly suggested I might want to move in a different direction.  Of course, this was before my second marriage, the one in which I managed to step in front of the same bullet I’d previously dodged.


NOTE TO SELF: No one is ever too old to behave like a moron.

You have to want to move on.

It takes time and work, but I’m glad I (finally) did it. There have been plenty of new traumas to cope with. I doubt I’d have survived if I hadn’t cleared the decks. I’m overloaded. I cannot read another angst-laden tale of abuse and trauma. I’m know how awful it can be. Been there. I support all efforts to free oneself from the lingering effects of the past — but I’ve got a few problems and plenty of personal angst. If I can, I’d rather make you laugh than cry.

Cardinal, well-fed!

For all of us, it’s time to stop defining ourselves as the worst things that happened to us. We are not what others did to us. We aren’t our mistakes. As much as we have suffered, surely we’ve also found at least a little bit of fun, joy, friends, and love.

Misery is like a piano falling on your head; happiness just creeps up on you. The result? Long after the people who hurt us have disappeared from our lives, they are still beating us up and the only one getting hurt is us.

Got any good jokes?

THE JOYS OF DOORMEN – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I lived in New York City for the first 40 years of my life and since then I’ve lived in the woods in a small town in Connecticut. So I have a good perspective on life in the city versus life in the country.

To be honest, there’s very little about city life I miss, except for being able to go to the theater without spending hours sitting in a car, stuck in traffic. However the one major perk of city life that makes me wax nostalgic, is the pleasure of living in an apartment building with doormen. Now, most people would probably not think of doormen as a big selling point for living in New York City. That’s because doormen are the best-kept secret among us long-time New Yorkers.

There’s a special relationship that often develops between friendly residents and chatty doormen. You get to know each other well and become like a family. These men know a lot about your life from the comings and goings in and out of your apartment. And people tend to talk to doormen, almost like they do to hairdressers. Mine knew my kids, my mom and my friends in the building, which created a strangely intimate relationship. They knew when we were doing work in our apartment, like when our upstairs neighbor’s bathroom leaked and our bathroom ceiling fell in. They followed every skirmish in our battle with the insurance companies, which lasted two years.

I’ve experienced this relationship as a child, as an adult and as a parent of young children. Each phase is unique and gratifying. As a child, every doorman knew my name and often the names of my friends who visited frequently. I had severe school anxiety so waiting for the school bus in the lobby every morning could have been a tense time for me if I hadn’t had a doorman to distract me and keep me talking. Jimmy was my favorite for many years, a tall thin man with a missing tooth who made me look forward to the morning wait for the bus. If I was running late, he would make the bus wait for me and would call up to our apartment to tell me to hurry up.

The doormen also helped the kids in the co-op bend the rules so we could play in the street. They let us skate and ride bikes in front of the building, which was strictly forbidden. They were our lookouts, warning us to stop if someone on the co-op board was entering or leaving the building and might ‘report’ us.

When my kids were young, we lived in a different building, all of two blocks away from the one I grew up in. But the next generation of doormen, they were as wonderful to my kids as mine had been to me, and they too developed a strong bond.

Their doormen let them skate, skateboard and practice gymnastics down the long, narrow hallway leading from our elevator to the lobby. I could send the kids downstairs to play on their own and know they were safe and supervised. I had built-in babysitters.

They often let my kids spy on people in the elevators on the security cameras they kept behind the lobby desk. For some reason, that was a huge treat!

The long hallway in my apartment building

Once our doormen went above and beyond for my ten-year-old son, David. David had a pet python and there was a large ficus tree in the lobby. David thought the snake would have fun climbing around in the tree so the doormen let David sneak the snake into the lobby and, when no one was looking, put it in the tree. David and the snake nonchalantly hung out in the lobby for several hours, with people coming and going, until someone finally noticed something moving in the tree. That ended the tree climbing experiment.

The lobby decor has changed but the ficus tree is still there!

As an adult, there are a myriad of other reasons for enjoying the luxury of having a doorman. They accept deliveries for you when you aren’t home and help you with your bags.

Another convenience, beyond mere safety, is they let workmen into your apartment when you aren’t home so you don’t have to wait for them to show up or give them your keys.

\You also feel safe knowing the doormen monitors everyone who comes into the building. They won’t let anyone up to your apartment without your approval. They are your first line of defense against predators and nuisances.

In the country, I’m friendly with the local post office workers, farmer’s market cashiers and with the people at the nearby coffee shop and market. It’s not the same thing. It’s not as personal. These people may like you, but they don’t know your life or have your back like doormen did.

Doormen are a special breed of extended family that I treasured as a New Yorker and I miss as a country dweller.

 

WHERE IS STEVE McQUEEN WHEN I REALLY NEED HIM? – Garry Armstrong

It must be payback. Karma, hubris – or both.

For more than 30 years, I drove a succession of fully loaded convertibles with Steve McQueen in my brain. Once, I was racing to a story in the dead of night when a State Trooper pulled me over. He asked the traditional question. He smiled when I told him I was heading to a fire. After being cautioned to drive responsibly, I sped on to the scene. Steve McQueen was with me.

Nothing fazed me. Not Boston crazies or New York cabbies. Oh, hubris!

My convertible days are behind me. Thanks to retirement, an income adjusted to social security, “wonderful” pensions and too many tickets from my Steve McQueen days, I drive like a normal guy, more or less. You’d think I’d paid my dues, atoned for my sins.

Not hardly, Pilgrim.

I’ll admit I still drive too fast, even if I’m doing the speed limit. That’s because I wasn’t born in the Valley and I don’t have Valley in my blood, so to speak. You see, in the Valley, driving is a leisurely business. Very leisurely. Twenty miles an hour is fast for a lot of our local people and not only in school areas. We are talking normal stretches of road with no special considerations or construction.

Not a racing car exactly!

I’m convinced there’s a legion of slow drivers waiting for me to pull out onto the street. I’ve been targeted. Wherever I go, they are waiting. It’s particularly frustrating when I’m heading to an appointment. These days, it’s usually a doctor appointment for my wife or me. We usually allow extra time for possible traffic jams, construction, weather delays, and accidents.

The X-Factor is the slow driver. (Drum-roll.)

They usually appear just as we are pushing up to the speed limit and think we’ll be able to make good time. We’ll get to our destination and have time to relax. I’m beginning to think about playing some music for the drive.

That’s when they show up. In the blink of an eye, they appear. The dreaded slow drivers. A whole conga line of slow drivers. No way to maneuver around them because our local roads are two lanes. One in each direction and narrow to boot. I can feel the anger and frustration beginning to boil up inside me.

If I’m driving alone, I allow the profanities full volume. If my wife is with me, I mumble, tighten my wrists and think evil, vile things. The slow drivers sense this and slow down even more. It is torture. What would Steve McQueen do?

Photo credit: RolexMagazine.com

Photo credit: RolexMagazine.com

Sanity and common sense kick in only because I know we can’t afford accidents with me as the culprit. That makes it more infuriating. They slow down, even more, sensing my plight. Could it be worse? Never ask that question because the answer is always yes!

It gets personal when I realize nature is calling. Home isn’t that far away but it could be an embarrassment if I don’t get there in time. The drivers drive even slower.

I whisper a prayer, forgiveness for my wild days on the road. I turn onto the road home. I can do this. I can make it. Traffic slows to a halt. What would Steve McQueen do?

Gritting my teeth, I see two cars ahead of me. They are staring at the road. They are texting. They are not old but rather part of the legion of slow drivers targeting me. All seems lost as I swing and sway to delay disaster, traffic begins to move again.

Slowly.

Minutes that seem like hours go by until I reach home. I pull down our long driveway. I race into the house with personal shame just narrowly averted. I calm down before returning to the car to collect my things.

I look up at the street. There’s no traffic. The slow drivers have disappeared. Is it a conspiracy?

What would Steve McQueen do?

MAO, A CAT – Marilyn Armstrong

Jeff and I got Mao as an 8-week-old kitten in the fall of 1965. We had just gotten married the month before, and of course, we had to have a cat right away. Why a Siamese? I don’t know. Karma maybe?

From the very first day, Mao was Master of All He Surveyed. Although I have had many cats through the years, Mao was the first and by far the most utterly unique.

Mao – our cat – Photo (from print) by Ben Taylor — and THANK YOU!

He was very smart for a cat. For instance, when we were out-of-town, we would have someone “house-sit” for us. No matter who that person was, and no matter how much Mao ordinarily liked them, while we were away, Mao would attack him or her (or them) virtually continuously during our absence. He would hide behind the bushes and attack legs as they tried to open the front door. He would wait around the corner and then pounce. He would launch himself from atop the bookcase, landing on a victim’s head, sometimes causing serious damage.

The moment we returned, Mao ceased his attacks and commenced purring. He figured, I believe, that he needed to drive out the interlopers so that we could return. Since we always DID return, his belief was consistently reinforced!

Mao protected us from bed goblins. If you were on Mao’s “family member” list, he would stop by your bedroom every night. You had to lift the covers so he could walk to the foot of the bed and back up. No goblins tonight? Good, I will go now, and he did.

Mao was the only cat I’ve ever known that perpetrated acts of vengeance hours or days after your perceived offense. If, for example, you shooed him off the table during dinner time, he would wait until you were sitting on the potty with your pants around your ankles and could not chase him. Then he would casually bite your shins. Tail held high, he would stroll away.

Mao patrolled the perimeter of the grounds like any good watch cat should. Every day of his life, he performed it, almost as if it were a ceremony. During his closing weeks with us, he began to patrol in the company of a younger feline, Mr. Manx. As if passing the torch to the next generation, he taught Mr. Manx to walk the perimeter, and inspect the beds, which Mr. Manx then did for the rest of his life.

In October 1978, Mao, who had been diagnosed with cancer some months before, disappeared. We never found his body, though we were sure he had gone off to die. For the last couple of weeks before his departure, we had noticed that he felt different. Where his muscles had been hard, they were now soft. He slept most of the day and moved slowly.

It is many years and lifetimes later. Jeff has passed. I live far from that place where Jeff and I and Mao and all the other fur-people lived. But I remember him. We all remember Mao, the most special cat.

Mao, I am sure you were there for Jeff when he came to the Bridge. I’m sure you will be there for me, too. You and all my other furry friends who I loved will be there together.

But you were and will always be, utterly unique and entirely unforgettable.