“Sometimes when I think no one cares, I go to Sears and tell them I’m lost. They say my name over and over on the loud speaker. We all need to matter. I matter to Sears.”
– Lily Tomlin as Edith Ann
Hard to believe my bat mitzvah was 30 years ago. (Okay, 31, but who’s counting?) In celebrating my cousin’s bat mitzvah this past weekend; I was reminded of my big day and all the family and friends who came to Cape Cod to celebrate. Even though I was excited about the presents and the party, I was well aware that it was a special and significant day in my life.
Many cultures and religions have an initiation ceremony to welcome their youngsters into adulthood. And why not? The preparation of learning a new language takes years and hours of study and dedication. By succeeding at something so difficult at an early age, it proves to them they have what it takes to thrive as they mature into adults.
It also says to a teen, “Your family and community are proud of you. We support you.” How many teens need to hear that? How many school shootings and stabbings might have been (or could be) avoided had someone told those kids, “Hey, you matter.” Hearing that might help some of them make better choices. In hearing my cousin’s parents say how proud they were of her, and seeing her beaming face in response, it was as if she was saying back to them, “Thanks. I will be a good person.” In that moment I was witnessing a promise – a promise of a bright future.
While the gifts I received from my bat mitzvah have long been forgotten (or spent!), the most valuable present I got that day I still have. The memory of all those smiling faces of family and friends who were there to support me, is an image I carry every day in everything I do. Knowing there is a team of people who believe in you to make a difference, can give you the strength to do just that.
“Women are not that interested in sports,” said a female friend of mine. Obviously she’s not, nor was she ever, an athlete. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Except, on some small scale, there is. Why didn’t anyone ever introduce her sports? She’s 40, about the same age as Title IX. In the past four decades the number of girls playing sports has skyrocketed from 295,000 to over 3.2 million. There may not have been as many soccer moms back then, but there were certainly girls playing sports. I should know, I was one of them.
Little League at age seven, basketball at nine. Countless hours spent hitting balls with my dad in the backyard and him rebounding baskets for me in the driveway. And all that work paid off. Not because I was voted Jewish Athlete of New England (that’s six states, but who’s bragging?) or because I was recruited to play two different Division I college sports, but because since then I’ve learned to look at every challenge with an “I can do this” attitude. Do you need to have been an athlete to have this confidence? No. Did it help? You betcha. It was self-confidence that made living in a 90 square foot apartment manageable when many said I was nuts. And it was that same confidence that helped me self-publish a book and sell almost 25,000 copies.
Tonight’s Women’s Final Four championship game is showcasing two undefeated basketball teams – the University of Connecticut and Notre Dame. Despite what my friend thinks, the stadium holds 20,000 seats and they’ve been sold out since last year. Then there’s the TV coverage. Are women really not that interested in sports? Yes, it’s true there is much more media coverage for men’s teams, but I wonder if increased coverage of the women’s teams would encourage more women to watch and even play.
This past Saturday I observed a father pitching balls to his young daughter in Riverside Park. When the girl hit a line drive, she rested the bat on her shoulder, her pigtails swaying, and a beautiful grin appeared on her face as she said, “I did it dad!” I was a huge fan of Barbie Dolls at that age too, but Barbie never brought up that feeling in me.
All those years playing ball didn’t get me the starting point guard job for the New York Liberty, but it was those endless hours shooting last-second buzzer-beaters that instilled in me the “can-do” attitude and confidence to succeed at almost every other challenge I’ve faced. Sports or no sports, you can’t argue with that.
After an extensive shopping spree last weekend I realized I’ve been going about this whole “living with less” thing the wrong way. Shopping is fun and we should acquire as much as we can. Sure, when my credit card bill arrives it’s going to be a bit of a nightmare, but I’ll just pay it off with another card. That is the American way after all.
When I returned to my apartment after the binge, me and my bags spilling out of the cab, my doorman helped me up to my apartment. From there I left my new wares in piles, mounds really, with no rhyme or reason. Suddenly my organized home resembled that of my first client, a woman who lived in a large studio overlooking Washington Square Park who hadn’t seen the top of her furniture in years. Cozy was how it felt. And with the sun shining through the windows, the colors and variations of the mismatched items was magnificent. Whimsical even.
It’s now been a few days and I’ve yet to put anything away, because, well, I don’t have the space. So I just walk around it. Extra steps = extra calories. Am I right or am I right?
I sat on a small sliver of available space on one arm of the couch and wondered, Why have I been trying to downsize all these years? Shopping and collecting is fun, as is not putting away a single thing. I even came up with a new motto: If you have a little free space in your home, fill it!
At one point I got up and walked to the bathroom, tripping a few times on the lilting piles, but I just rubbed my shins and kept going. I can overlook the black and blue marks, even the limited floor space, if it means holding on to this carefree feeling. Why has no one ever told me how enjoyable it is to shove stuff into cabinets? No longer am I going to waste my time organizing when I can spend it acquiring. Sure, about 99% of the stuff I bought I don’t need, but so what? Forget less is more. More is more! A revelation folks, is what it is.
And while I can no longer have friends over since there’s no place to sit, I do have stuff to keep me company. Loads of it! Of course, if I do get depressed living like a hoarder, there’s always retail therapy.
Who you kidding? April Fools!
Since college, I’ve spent at least one week every year down in Florida hanging out with my grandparents. Early on, I would shuffle back and forth between my mother’s and my father’s parents, as their condos were just seven miles apart.
Unbeknownst to me until a few years ago, those trips were less about lounging by the pool, eating dinner at 4:30 or seeing how many sugar packets one could stuff into their purses at the diner, and more about gaining insight into the aging process.
While I don’t have a master’s degree in Geriatric Psychology, I do know a great deal about seniors. Which is why I was chosen to go on Papa Patrol last week. And while it was nice to spend a week with my grandfather, I could see there were times he wasn’t the man I used to know. The man who I can still picture standing behind the deli counter in his grocery store making me a ham (“Don’t tell nana”) sandwich and conversing with customers. Instead I saw a 93-year-old man, walking painfully slow, confused about his medication and scared about the future.
Having unofficially studied the aging process, I knew to be calm, sympathetic and caring – caring being the optimal word. I saw firsthand how uncaring many in health care, Medicare, and long-term care can be. Anyone who’s had to deal with these places is familiar with the frustrating red tape, but imagine doing this with hearing that’s failing, blurry eyesight and a mind that isn’t as sharp as it once was. The world can be pretty terrifying as it races by. Our twilight years should be spent enjoying grandchildren, not arguing with pharmacists at Walgreens.
Every night, Papa and I tackled organizing projects. Not only because I’m good at them, but because it kept his mind occupied, as that was the toughest part of the day. One evening we went through his old address book and I rewrote the names into a new one. As Papa read through each page he would sigh and say, “I don’t know who dis is” or “I don’t call him anymore” or “They’re dead.”
Of all the lessons I’ve learned over the years from this older generation, such as “save your money,” the biggest piece of advice came last week.
“Don’t get old,” my grandfather said.
“Okay, Papa,” I said. “I’ll try.”
With all the flying I did this winter, I was amazed to have avoided weather delays. That was until this past Sunday, less than a week before the start of spring. Waking at 5:30am to catch an early flight from St. Louis, where I’d been on business, to Florida for “Papa Patrol, ”a peek out my window brought relief. Nothing but clear sky.
At the airport, I went directly to the American Airlines kiosk and noticed an extremely long line over at U.S. Airways. “Sucks to be you,” I thought, my favorite line from the musical Avenue Q. When the machine instructed me to see an agent, I got worried.
“Your flight’s been cancelled because of weather,” the agent said.
“What weather?” I asked.
“Exactly. Weather guys get paid to be wrong.”
“What other flights are there?”
The agent half smirked. “It’s spring break. We have no flights.”
This can’t be. My grandfather needed me. Luckily the agent found me a seat on a Delta flight at 3pm through New York City, getting me to Florida at 11pm, eight hours later than expected. Not the best scenario, but what other choice did I have?
At security my bag was flagged. Not like I was in a rush. The TSA agent opened my suitcase.
“What’s this?” she asked, removing a plastic bag from Trader Joe’s.
“Chocolate,” I said, thinking of the four dark chocolate one-pounder bars my grandfather had requested. As she walked away to rescan the chocolate, panic set in. Not for the $20 they cost, but for the price of the disappointment in Papa’s eyes if I showed up without them. She soon returned and handed back the chocolate.
“Thanks,” I said. “For a minute I wondered if Weight Watchers had taken over the TSA.”
Any other time faced with a long delay I would be aggravated, but I’ve traveled too much to be left in the lurch. While it’s impossible to predict delays, what is possible is being prepared for them. Which is why I had a new book to read, my laptop to do work on and a warm scarf. So my Sunday was spent, like most, productively. Sipping hot water with honey to soothe my sore throat, I wrote until the sun came up. When it did I called Papa right away and explained my situation so as to soothe his worry of why I’d be late.
In New York City we’re used to being on top of our neighbors. Literally. Vertical Living has us stacked like Legos enabling us to hear, see and oftentimes smell their goings on. Like noises through the walls or newspapers piled up upside their doors. And I always know when my neighbor Elaine is home, because the aroma of something baking hits me as soon as I step off the elevator. And even though most of us live so close, folks tend to keep to themselves. But not everyone.
My first week in the apartment I found a bottle of wine and a note at my door. “Welcome to the building,” the note read from the family who lived above me. “And we apologize for our toddler’s constant pitter-patter.” That kind act led me to go upstairs to thank them and introduce myself. Not only was it nice to meet a neighbor, but the wife became my early morning walking partner.
After graduating from UMass Amherst I worked with the new student orientation and ran a session on housing. Along with explaining the various residence halls, I suggested to these wide-eyed 18-year-olds that they get to know everyone on their floor so they would be able to spot strangers. This is true whether you live in a building with 100 units or on a quaint country road; knowing your neighbors might just save your life.
Last week a Michigan woman was found mummified inside her garage. No one noticed she’d been missing for six years. Though one neighbor did cut her lawn to keep the neighborhood looking good, why was no one checking out to see how she was looking? Neighbors said they thought she was traveling or had moved.
But questions linger. Wouldn’t her mail have piled up? Wasn’t anyone aware that the lights were never on? Something doesn’t add up, but regardless, hearing this makes me want to knock on everyone’s door in my building and introduce myself. If not to possibly make another friend, but just so that if someone doesn’t see me for a few days, they take notice.
While they weren’t my grandmother’s last words, “Please keep the house as you know I like it,” came in at a close second. Days before she passed, she said this to Yvonne, my grandparents’ home health aide, whose responsibilities include light housekeeping. With all that was running through her mind, my grandmother wanted to make certain that after she was gone her home remained clean.
But she’s not the only one who likes their home spotless. For some, a clean home is a reflection of who they are, for others it’s just their preference. For my grandmother it was both. Plus, I’m sure she wanted it to stay nice for my grandfather.
While I can live with a dust ball or two (I’ve been known to name them), I do like everything in its place. Before I sit down to write, the dishes need to be cleaned, the bed made and any clothes or paper put away. It also motivates me. By first completing those little tasks, it encourages me to complete the bigger ones. But I’m not just like this at home. I don’t litter, I recycle correctly in my building, and my desk at work (which I share) is left neat when I’m done. It’s consideration for my neighbors.
Which can’t be said for everyone.
I live on the Upper West Side, which I’ve renamed the Upper Back Side, as folks walking their dogs can’t seem to clean up after them. At my gym, certain individuals are incapable of wiping down the machines after sweating all over them, and in some of the public restrooms I’ve been in lately, there are women who now think it’s acceptable to go on the seat. I’m not asking people to start lugging Lysol, but it would be nice if folks started picking up after themselves, if not their dogs. I’m sure my grandmother would agree.
Food, especially to a survivor, is very important. But even more important for them is making sure their grandchildren eat. Nana is no exception. I’ve been happily eating her thick soups you can eat with a fork, mundelbred (what I call “Jewish biscotti”), and cholent, a potato and meat dish that takes half a day to cook.
Before my visit this past January, Nana warned me, “Mamelah, I’m not the same person I was six months ago. I can’t cook.”
“That’s okay Nana,” I said. “I can cook.” She laughed. While yes, I can cook, the kitchen is Nana’s domain.
From the moment I arrived, Nana was in tremendous pain, but that didn’t stop her. Walking deliberately, a hand on her back, she started heating up soup for me.
“So Mameleh, how are you doing? You lost weight, yes?” Standard greeting.
“Forget me,” I said. “How are you?”
“Eh.” Her pale eyebrows scrunched up. “How should I be? I’m 88. I’m tired.”
Days in Florida go slowly; time marked by pills, meals and television shows. On that visit Nana slept most of the day, her pain knocking her out, but she still insisted on hosting a dinner party for seven, with Papa and I helping to cook her famous cholent.
The party was a success, but the best part was the leftover cholent.
“For breakfast Mameleh?” Nana said, laughing when she walked into the kitchen. But I know it made her feel good to know she still had it in her.
Every evening we watched Jeopardy and Nana slapped me every time I knew an answer. (I would like to say it made a bruise, but there weren’t that many slaps…)
One afternoon before going for a bike ride, I checked on Nana. She was awake staring into space. I sat at the foot of the bed and rubbed her feet through the blanket.
“I lived a good life,” Nana said looking at me, but seeing something far beyond. “But I’m ready to go.”
“Go where?” I asked; humor my auto-response to sadness.
Nana gave a resigned smile. “The last time I saw my mother I was a thirteen and was being taken away by the Nazis. My mother ran after me to give me a sweater and this one Nazi started beating her. I can still see this so clearly.”
“What did you do?”
Nana shrugged. “What could I do? I looked back and saw my mother lying on the ground, blood coming out of her head. This is the last image I have of her.”
“Do you think you will see your mother again when you die?”
Nana smiled. “That would be nice.”
This past Friday my grandmother passed away. As I sat crying with the news, a little part of me was happy for my grandmother, because I pictured her, a little girl again, running towards her mother’s open arms.
Following up on last’s week’s blog about scrutinizing your finances, I received a little more proof that if you aren’t looking out for your money, no one else is.
Recently I opened a new checking account. Sitting at a fancy desk in an enormous modern bank on Broadway, I asked the banker, a woman in her thirties, tips for balancing my current account. “I usually balance it every month, but lately it’s been off. What do you suggest I do to reconcile it?”
She looked at me strangely. “What do you mean reconcile?”
Now it was I with the strange look. “You know, balance it against my check register so it matches the ending balance on the statement.”
“You do what?”
I understand the reason for not balancing your checkbook. It can be time consuming, you’re afraid of the reality of the balance, or maybe you didn’t do well in grade school math, but this “banker” had absolutely no clue what I was talking about. Her advice? “Just look at the balance on your phone and go by that amount.” Is it me or is this cause for alarm?
After opening my first checking account in college, the banker advised me to balance my account every month. “Banks make mistakes,” he said. “Don’t trust them.” And while I’ve been heeding his warning ever since, I may be one of the few.
This morning I went into a different branch to deposit a check that had been endorsed over to me. It’s been years since I deposited an endorsed check so I Googled how to do it. My colleague then signed the back of the check and wrote, “Pay to the Order of Felice Cohen.” Wanting to confirm before I approached the ATM, I double-checked with a banker.
“You can’t endorse checks to other people,” said the banker, a woman in her 20s, with eyebrows entirely made of pencil.
“Really?” I said. “Checks can’t be endorsed over anymore?”
“Of course not,” she said. “Then anyone could sign someone’s name. No, the person has to deposit the check, then write another check to you.”
I stood there, slightly dazed. “Wait a minute,” I thought to myself, “this can’t be right.” I found a bank manager who assured me I could deposit the check as I’d prepared. I left feeling slightly better, but still not confident the advice I’m getting from bankers is advice that should be counted on.
Many of us today pay our bills automatically with a credit card because it saves time. No longer do we have to rip open envelopes, write out checks, lick stamps and drop them in a mailbox. Now we just get an email reading, “Invoice Paid.” And whether you open these emails, file them in corresponding folders or delete them is up to you. But be careful. While this process saves oodles of time, it could be costing you money.
Case in point: my monthly cable bill is always the same. So when the payment email appeared in my Inbox last month and I saw that it was a lot more than usual, a red flag went up. Turns out the $5.99 monthly rental charge for my modem was still there despite the fact I returned said modem months ago when I bought one to avoid this fee. So why was it still there? According to customer service, “Oh, someone must have just missed that.” Missed it, eh? Easy for him, he’s not the one paying my bills.
I wish I could say this was an isolated incident.
Last week I received an office phone bill for $8.61. Not a lot, sure, except for the fact that I closed this account two months ago. Since the bill was paid automatically with a credit card, this could have easily gone unnoticed and the phone company would have continued to bill me month after month. As any credit card scam artist will tell you, $8.61 adds up quickly, which is how a lot of them make their money. They add these harmless amounts to your bills hoping you won’t notice them. Which most folks don’t notice, because they don’t look. So look.
Now when it comes to my credit card, I check it like a dermatologist doing a mole check on George Hamilton. Thoroughly. Which is how I found four false charges on my last bill for snowboarding gear totaling a whopping $1,400. In this day and age of credit card fraud and identity theft, we not only need to keep our finances safe from the petty scam artist, but the big guys too. But don’t take my word for it. Ask a Target customer.