Wednesday, December 29, 2010

It's Not Easy Being Random

A few weeks ago, I agreed to participate in David’s Second Annual Pay It Forward Day. I don’t know David. It was an event sent to me as an electronic message by an old work colleague. The event was to take place December 1st, from 7:00 AM to 8:30 PM. Participants were asked to perform a random act of kindness. Pay for someone’s coffee. Help someone out. Get the next person’s gas. “When you do something for someone,” David wrote, “there’s a good chance they’ll do something nice for someone else.”

This is exactly the type of thing I love getting involved in. Or so I thought.

I made a commitment to myself to participate and immediately had specific Random Acts in mind. I had two doctor appointments that day and I was going to bring a bouquet of flowers to the receptionist at each office.

I don’t know if anyone remembers December 1st, but it was a wet and windy Wednesday. Branches and trees were falling and the rain came down in torrents. I couldn’t bear the thought of parking and walking to a florist before my noon appointment, so I excused myself from Act I and arrived at that doctor’s empty-handed. The rain continued. I did not want to go to the florist any more at 3:00 than I did at noon, but I had to get some milk so I went to the grocery store and picked up a potted plant for receptionist number two.

The gift seemed to please her, and I was happy I had kept my promise, but deep down I knew I had cheated. This was a doctor I visit often, and I have a close, friendly relationship with the receptionist. There didn’t seem anything random about bringing her a plant at holiday time. It was just a nice (albeit an uncharacteristically nice) thing for me to do.

Later that day, I felt the disappointment mounting. Then a friend emailed me and told me she couldn’t get herself out into the horrible weather to perform her random act, so she was going to do it tomorrow. I jumped all over her, saying that there were still plenty more hours of Pay It Forward Day remaining. She was stuck in the house with her young kids, she said. You can figure something out, I said. I simply would not let her off the hook.

She said she was going to make an online donation to an organization that she’s supported in the past. I told her I thought she could do better than that.

It’s not that I’m against organized charities – I’m not. But charitable donations do not smack of Random Acts of Kindness – at least not to me. I feel like the whole point of Random Acts, is to do something that’s really atypical for you. Even better if it’s anonymous. Better still if it’s a little difficult. Nowhere is this written, but I had embraced it as if it were law.

I’m not sure what made me such a complete bitch about this “event,” but it wasn’t lost on me, even at the time, that my crummy attitude was completely counter to the spirit of what David hoped to conceive. I’ve spent most of my adult life across from a therapist, inspecting how I take out on other people my own shortcomings. Here I was, doing it again, and all of a sudden decades of therapy bills seemed like a complete waste of money.

So, partly to honor my commitment and partly to get better value out of my therapy dollar, I forced myself to stop berating my friend and instead myself go execute the Act that I thought she should have done.

I pulled out the phone book, opened it up, pointed to a name and circled it. I got an envelope, addressed it to my randomly-chosen name, stuck a twenty-dollar bill in a card and dropped it in the mail.

I did do all that. But there was a lot of time between each step. Because when something is especially hard for me, I stall. And I find reasons not to go through with it. Like: This is an old phone book, what if this person doesn’t live there anymore? And: I don’t really like that name, maybe I should open to a different page and pick someone new. Or: What if this is a substance abuser and I’m contributing to his ultimate demise. But especially: Money is tight; this is not the time to be sending it to complete strangers.

By the time I actually got the card into the mail, it was December 3rd, and even that took a lot of effort. The whole thing felt like flushing money down the toilet to me – money I really don’t have to flush.

But when I think of that man opening his mail, reading an unsigned card that starts off, “Hi, you don’t know me, but…” and having a twenty dollar bill fall into his lap, it sort of makes me wish I had put in a little more. I imagine him using it to take his son out for an ice cream, or maybe bringing home a pizza for the family. I imagine him going to work the next day and surprising someone with a cup of coffee. Or letting someone go ahead of him at the bank. And then that new person going out of her way to return someone’s dropped glove. A little domino effect that might go on and on forever.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Perhaps the question that needs to be asked is: Why a flash mob? Why not just show up at someone’s wedding or bar mitzvah and join in a line dance?

I really wanted it to be a Flash Mob, because in a Flash Mob there’s surprise.

I understand that now, because I can pinpoint the exact moment when it occurred to me that there might not be any element of surprise in this happening.

We arrived early at the hotel to rehearse – this is because, despite a brushing of snow on the ground and reportedly icy conditions, Claudine got us into Midtown in 30 pre-dawn minutes – and the four of us (Claudine, her two friends Amy and Joanna, and I) sat down on the carpeted ballroom floor to wait for the organizers to show up. A woman in a hot pink hoodie sat down next to us and announced, “I’m so glad to see that there are other people here my own age.” We all smiled politely, even though she looked like she was close to 70 and even if she were only 60, none of us consider that “our own age,” especially not Joanna, who is 27.

Eventually, rehearsal began and it didn’t matter how old anyone was anymore, we all set about the task of perfecting our 5-minute Cha-Cha dance. After an hour there were still splinter groups learning the basic steps while the rest of the room was running the routine. And then we were allowed a break.

At this point it was after 8:00. Nothing was mentioned about a solitary person jumping out of the crowd and starting the dance. No groups were formed that would constitute the spontaneous eruption of satellite dancers. We were all just going to start dancing at the appointed time, which was 10 a.m. It was then that my crest began to droop.

The four of us went out for breakfast and returned a little before 9:30, the time that we were to set out for Times Square. Before we left, everyone received a powder blue skullcap with a Charmin logo on it and the Spanish words “ir es disfrutar” which seem to mean something like “take pleasure in.” “Take pleasure in this toilet paper,” our hats commanded, as we put them on and headed up 43rd Street to Military Island.

There, in the middle of Times Square, were a stage, speakers, Charmin signage, filming crews and three Latina Cha-Cha dancers recruiting people off the street to learn the dance moves that we just woke up at 5 a.m. to perfect. There were tables set up where they were giving away Charmin skullcaps and herding masses of people into the barricaded Cha-Cha area.

“Make sure you wear your wristbands,” they told us at the hotel, “or you won’t be permitted into the secured area.” Huh? The only people who were not in the “secured area,” were those who opted not to stand outside for 25 minutes in 10-degree cold and listen to a Charmin pitch blaring in Spanish throughout Times Square.

At this point, none of us four had a buoyant crest among us.

One of us managed to spit out the words that the rest of us were too appalled to utter. “This is not a Flash Mob. It’s a tacky PR stunt.”

There was really no reason to stay at that point, except for the fact that we’d all gotten up at 5 o’clock and spent the last two hours practicing a dance routine that we’ll otherwise never do again in our lives. So we did stay. Until 10:00. When they announced that the moment we’d all been waiting for had finally arrived.

However, this was not the moment I’d been waiting for. I was waiting for a moment that never came at all. The moment where magic breaks open a crowd of innocent bystanders and they look on with a mix of incredulity and delight. Even the woman who came to her 4th floor Broadway office window and looked down at us standing numbly in the cold just shook her head and walked away.

In the end, we did our Charmin Cha-Cha. You might think the saddest part of it all was being mistaken for a 70-year-old, or having to wear a cheap Charmin skullcap on my perfect Keratin hair. But it wasn’t. The saddest part of it all was that in the end, you couldn’t tell the difference between the Flash Mobbers and the Times Square Recruits – the people who had bee practicing for seven days versus the people who had learned the dance seven minutes ago. In the frigid cold, with outerwear that could double as sleeping bags, everybody’s Cha-Cha looks exactly the same. Which is to say, not caliente, but more like mierda.

And so to make myself whole again -- to pick up my fallen crest and stand up tall – I have chosen to employ the tried and true strategy of denial. As far as I’m concerned, I am still a Flash Mob Virgin. This happening never happened. I will go forth to find myself a good and right Flash Mob, and when I do… Ole.

Monday, December 13, 2010

And You May Say To Yourself: My God, What Have I Done?

The real secret of dance is to make it look easy. Anyone can learn steps and routines if they practice long enough, but a real dancer can pull the whole thing off with a smile on her face, as if what she was doing were no more effort than strolling out to the sidewalk to pick up the morning paper. This is the main arena in which Real Dancers and I diverge.

I guess I wasn’t the only one who asked for a bigger Flash Mob t-shirt, because I got an email the other day that t-shirts were history. Skullcaps instead. This, so everyone can dress as warmly as possible for the “crazy weather.” As soon as I saw that – “crazy weather” – I started checking my little Google Weather icon almost hourly. Since Saturday, it has had a shy little sun peeking out from behind a fluffy cloud for Flash Mob Day. Nothing too crazy about that. One email said that there would probably be a lot of people flaking out because of the weather, but if we could handle the risk and were willing to dance anyway, c’mon down.

I realized then, for the first time ever, that it might actually rain on my flash mob. That certainly made the whole thing seem less fun.

Tonight, the forecast for Flash Mob Day is just cold – bitterly cold, actually; seemingly more than a skullcap might mitigate. It seems so unfair that my one shot at dancing on Broadway is going to include a wind-chill factor in the teens.

I spoke with Claudine for an outerwear consult and she confirmed that she would be dancing in a big, long puffy coat. And that I should, too.

“I don’t know if I can do that dance in a long, down coat,” I said.

This, understandably, was not her concern. “You know what my dad would say whenever I left my house in the cold? Claudine, cover your ass!”

So, I will rise before the sun tomorrow. I will get into a cold car and set off in the dark to dance with who-knows-how-many-other skull-capped people on a frosty, windy, winter morning that may or may not include snow. This is what I wished for, so I will try and enjoy it. But will I make it look easy?

I don’t think so.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Let's Dance More!

I have just reconciled myself to the fact that the cold is going to be the least of my problems with my current Flash Mob endeavor.

Information trickles in every day or two. First came the video, so we can learn the dance. Then information about optional rehearsals. Then an MP3 with the actual music. I’ve never been a part of anything like this, so receiving the emails is its own kind of thrill.

At first we were told we would be wearing matching t-shirts and were asked to give our t-shirt size when we signed up. At the time, I was still deluding myself into thinking this might be an indoor event, so I asked for an Adult Small. When I finally came to accept that we would be mobbing out of doors, I sent back an email begging for a Medium, so I could layer, layer, layer underneath.

A few days ago I started out the arduous process of learning the dance. As you might recall from my previous post, this is the part I’m not good at. If you’ve ever learned a dance routine, you may remember that at first the steps are demonstrated very, very slowly. Like you’re underwater. This instruction seems as if it has nothing to do with anything once you pick up the tempo and dance at the right speed. It’s not like learning the Slow Version and the Fast Version. It’s more like learning two different dances entirely.

My first and second attempts were bombs. I couldn’t get through the whole routine – couldn’t remember it, couldn’t execute it, just plain couldn’t. I stopped dancing and started studying the video. I took notes, writing everything down. This is how I have to learn things – by writing it and rewriting it. This afternoon I decided I was going to learn the routine start to finish no matter what.

I set up the MP-3 and had my 11-year-old assist me both as step caller and musical director. The kid happens to be an incredible dancer, so he also gave me a few tips. I found a spot to practice and I ran the steps over and over and over again, all the while shedding layers of clothing – first my hoodie, then my long-sleeve, until finally I was down to my t-shirt and ready to put on a pair of shorts.

After 45 minutes, I kind of knew the steps – but I was completely wrung out. We will be rehearsing for two hours before the event and I really don’t know if I can make it. My husband said, “If you can spin for an hour, you can do this.”


The 11-year-old said, “Just find a spot in the middle and toward the back so not too many people will see you.”


When I told the teenager what I was going to be doing he said, “What are you doing that for?”

I refrained from sharing with him my secret wish to be a back-up dancer and just said, “I thought it would be a fun story for you to tell your grandchildren.”

“I’m not even telling my children you did this,” he said.

My aching legs. My snotty kids. It all makes dancing in the cold seem like a walk in the park.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Let's Dance!

The night that Claudine and I went to see David Byrne at the Wellmont, we left our husbands seated in the row and ran off to the aisles to sing and dance. The Wellmont is a theatre, not a dance club, but you’d never know it by our behavior, swept away, as we were, by the infectious beat. At one point, Claudine leaned in to me and shouted, “You know, my secret career fantasy has always been to be a back-up singer.”

“Mine has always been to be one of those dancers,” I shouted back, pointing to the white clad women on stage with Byrne executing perfectly choreographed moves.

I took so many dance classes in college that it could have been my minor (if they had offered such a thing). I wasn’t good at them, though. In fact, it was those dance classes that kept me from graduating with the highest of honors. I usually got Bs, and once maybe a C, because, among other things, I cannot turn, or leap, or master anything beyond the most basic steps. The only thing that kept me from getting Ds was that we had to attend two professional performances a semester and write about them – and apparently I was the only one in the dance department who could string together a sentence. My reviews pulled my dance grades out of the toilet, but the dancer in me has never been entirely extinguished.

So the other day, when I saw this video of a bunch of people breaking out in dance in the middle of Ben Yahuda Street, I posted it on Facebook with the comment: "If anyone is putting together one of these Flash Mob thingies, I’m totally in!”

That line was my way of expressing my love of and enthusiasm for what I witnessed in the video. In no way did I expect Claudine to send me a link to an open call for a Flash Mob a week later. “You wanted a Flash Mob…” she wrote. “you got one.”

These Flash Mobs are top-secret events, so I can’t give out much detail. But I will say this: That Ben Yahuda video was done a year ago November where, in Israel, the average temperature is about 65 degrees. And I, on this very 32-degree day, have just given over to wearing my big, long, black down coat every single outing until May. I can’t imagine that the heft and loft of that wrap is going to add much to my already dubious dancing skills. But I’m hoping that, as usual, an essay at the end might save me.

(As a complete aside -- this post is my 200th on this blog. I think I celebrated my 100th post last year, so I just thought I'd keep the tradition alive.)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Good, The Bad and The Keratin

I just sat down to write about my Keratin treatment. About how I got it on a whim yesterday at the salon, and how I left the salon with pin straight hair that completely freaked me out, even though my stylist warned me not to judge it until the next day, once it had been washed and some of the natural wave returned. And about how she also warned me to be extremely careful, in the hours before washing, not to wear hats or use barrettes or even allow the handle of my handbag to touch it on my shoulder because any little impression on it could (and probably would) remain as a permanent dent in the finished product.

I was going to write about how I woke up this morning and washed it, and then spent about seven minutes with the blow-dryer and ended up with a luscious, silky, wavy hairdo that was completely devoid of frizz and made me look like a (middle-aged) Breck Girl. I was going to recount how I showed up at tennis with my new coif and how afterwards I asked Gina to take a picture of it with her iPhone so I could send it to my Curly Girl Friends so they could see the miracle that had taken place.

I would have added the part where, embarrassed to be posing for pictures in the parking lot, I yelled out to Melissa on her way in that I had just gotten Keratin, and how Melissa called me a traitor (because she is a Curly Girl) and how I smiled and agreed. And then how Melissa said she was envious because I would now be taken more seriously, and how Shelley said, “Oh my God, it’s only hair,” and how Melissa and I shook our heads knowingly, indicating that we understood that Shelley was right in principal, but in actual fact, Straight Girls do get taken more seriously than Curly Girls, and wondering whether we should tell Shelley that it’s not because she wears her nightclothes out during the day, or that she didn’t go to Harvard that she doesn’t get taken seriously, it’s because she, too, is a Curly Girl, and that’s just how life is for us.

I would have tried to capture how this hair treatment unlocked something in me that made me feel more confident and outgoing, funnier and more charming, but I would have stopped myself, thinking that’s silly – hair doesn’t really do all that.

I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to get to any of that, or even if I could have thrown in the line about how this feels like the Botox of hair treatments (which may have seemed random and out of context), because I stopped writing after the first sentence to check online and see what exactly Keratin was – scientifically – and after I’d found that out, I just went to one more site to read about it as a hair treatment, and it was there that I found a post from a woman who was crying for help because after her Keratin treatment she started losing her hair. Fast.

Of course, I had to scroll down and read more of the posts and was heartened to learn that many people responded with sensible advice for her. But even more responded that the exact same thing had happened to them, and as I read I could actually feel the sweat develop on my palms and my breath start to shorten in my chest and I thought to myself, “Oh, gee…I’m going down.”

I stopped reading and reverted to skimming, and then once my anxiety registered an 8.0 on the Richter Scale, I found my way to my husband and curled up on his lap and told him I’d made a terrible mistake that there seemed no way to undo and began to moan about how scared I was that I was now going to lose my hair.

“You’ve been doing so well, today,” he said, “what happened?”

I told him about my time on the internet and he attempted to talk me off the ledge. “You have to do this, don’t you?” he said. “You can’t just let a good thing be good for very long.”

And I nodded, yes, but I didn’t have to. Because we both know that’s exactly what I do. I did it today, during tennis, when we were up two games right off the bat. We ended up losing the set 2-6 or something. And I do it in my mind all day long – spinning off different horror scenarios because I’ve just found myself singing joyfully, gleefully, to We Won’t Get Fooled Again at 60 miles an hour after a surprisingly pleasant errand of returns to Marshall’s.

We came back in the second set this morning, and I was able to leave my husband’s arms tonight and come back here and write – things that I don’t think I could have done even just a year ago. But still, it’s vexing. How the mind works. How it knows the job it has to do and it goes at it like a steamroller. How no amount of tennis lessons or expert advice is ever going to touch that steamroller. Only the practice of learning to leave well enough alone.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Oh! Christmas Trees!

In the middle of November, I received this note: “Lots of town and FaceBook chatter about the obnoxiously early lighted Xmas tree on Valley near the A&P. This is begging for a Jessica Wolf post/column!”

Perhaps, dear note writer. But it may not be what you expect.

I saw those trees for the first time a few days before Thanksgiving. (There are two of them, one close to the road and one further back toward the house.) They’re tall and festooned from head to toe with multi-colored lights that appear to stay lit day and night. I had my kids in the car with me when I drove by and I said aloud, “Oh, those must be the trees that everyone’s talking about.”

“In what way?” asked the teenager.

“I think people are mad that they’re lit up so early,” I said.

“People are mad?” asked my son. “Does anyone really have time for that?”

His question stopped me short, and I immediately put an end to my thoughts about Christmas Trees and began instead to think about Being Mad, wherein it dawned on me for the first time ever that I have never really had time to be mad about most of the things I get mad at. I make time.

The incident that first comes to mind is when the guy in Hoboken stole my sofa. It actually wasn’t a sofa, it was a chaise longue or a fainting couch, and it actually wasn’t even mine, it was my husband’s and before that, his mother’s. It was old and ornate and it was covered in a golden fabric that was decorated with little embroidered bees. The fabric was wearing thin, so I found someone – a guy with a storefront shop – who said he would recover it. He came over and measured. I picked out my fabric. I gave him a deposit. He took my sofa. And that was the end.

The end, as in: I never saw my sofa again.

He didn’t return my calls. His shop was always locked up. The storefront eventually closed.

I called the police. I filed a small claims suit against him. I went to court. He never showed up.

I tracked him down at a waitering job. I found out where he lived. I barged into his apartment. I demanded justice. He told me he would make good.

He never did.

I spent close to a year enraged about what he’d done. I was mad about the sofa, my deposit, the court system, his ability to lie to my face, as well as the fact that he had the same name as an upstanding television dad from my youth. I was mad that I had to breathe the same air as he did. In short, I thought he should be annihilated.

My husband said to me, “Let it go.”

What? You don’t let things go if you’re in the right? I’m right about this! This guy is lowly pond scum. Why should I let this go?

“Because that’s the only way you’re ever going to feel good again,” my husband said. “You have to let it go, even if you’re right.”

My teenage boy was just a little baby at the time, and as anyone with a little baby knows, moms don’t have time for much of anything. But I was able to find plenty of time to be mad. Which, in the long run, got me nowhere.

I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with thinking that it’s unbecoming to light a tree too early in the season. But, I sure hope it was a fleeting thought for most.

I actually like the trees, and I don’t mind at all that they were lit in the middle of November. Someone had the forethought to string their lights up before it got so cold that their fingers become numb with the job. Also, it seems that they went up right around Fall Back Day, just as daylight was beginning to get cut short. That’s the whole point of tree-lighting, isn’t it? To help us endure the short days and long nights with something sparkly and festive to look at?

I love outdoor Christmas decorations, and as far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as too early or too late. Or too garish, for that matter. It’s dark and cold, and it will be for months – I say: bring it!

(This post appears on Montclair Patch, HERE.)