Last weekend I made my first apple pie. Making it was, well, a piece of cake. But that had more to do with my cousin Todd who supervised the Apple Pie-A-Thon in his kitchen, than about my skills as a baker.
When you’re organized and have all the ingredients and kitchen tools at the ready, making an apple pie (or anything else for that matter) is pretty simple. In one afternoon, Todd oversaw the making of 33 pies. (After I made mine, I was more useful washing dishes and organizing kitchen cabinets).
The Pie-A-Thon was part of my cousin Jenny and her husband Todd’s annual Columbus Day/Apple Picking/Pie Making weekend. They invite 40 family and friends to their upstate New York home. Sleeping bags, air mattresses and sweatshirts adorn every corner of their homey abode. The kitchen is in continual use. Kids run around nonstop, while adults chat as new faces arrive hourly. The days are interspersed with hiking, biking, campfires and eating. It’s constant fun.
As seamless as the weekend appeared, there was plenty of preparation that went into it. One section of their 3-car garage resembled a mini Costco as it was filled with industrial sized bags of sugar and flour (for the pies), paper goods, bagels, peanut butter, drinks, snacks and more. Much more. It’s obvious Jenny and I are cut from the same cloth, though she may be a step or two above me.
Planning and hosting this event requires plenty of lists. Foods to buy, folks who are coming, and things to do. However, that’s only part of it. The part that makes your guests feel like they just had the most magical 3-days of their lives does not come from a To Do list or is found in any How To Plan a Party manual. That skill comes from within, from the love you feel for those around you. Come to think of it, that’s also the secret ingredient for any successful recipe. Oh how delicious it is.
I believe that coincidences have meaning. With so much of our lives predictable, why not consider there may be reasons behind the unexplained?
Years ago I hired a window washing company for a client on East 78th Street and Madison Avenue. The window washer, secured to the side of the building, intently concentrating on his work, was done and gone in less than an hour. Last Wednesday, at another client’s on Park Avenue and 92nd Street, as I headed up to the penthouse, the elevator stopped and two men got on. I recognized one immediately.
“Hi,” I said to him. “You did the windows for my client a few years ago.” He smiled shyly. “You look like Forest Whitaker,” I added. He continued to smile. For all he knew, “forest” was just a bunch of trees. But what are the odds of bumping into him? Not just because there are millions, probably billions of windows in the city, but on the same elevator, at the same time?
Two days later, on Friday morning, my doorman buzzed. A workman was on his way up. Seconds later I opened my door and would you believe it was the same window guy? This time he recognized me too and we were equally as stunned. Twice in one week? And now way on the other side of town?
“Are you the only window guy in the city?” I asked. This time he laughed. We chatted while he fixed my window, taking extra care that it was just right.
As a believer in fate I like to think it’s a sign. Not some heavy, mythical, the world is ending sign, but a subtle one, reminding me of the benefits of being aware of my surroundings and the people I interact with. Do you make eye contact with the person who makes your morning coffee? Do you notice other people on the street? Or are you too focused on your cell phone? Maybe if we paid a little more attention in the moment we might not miss our next true love, business investor or even a best friend as they pass us by. Now that’s not fate, that’s just fateful.
We all have priorities. For some it’s to be successful and make a lot of money. For others, it’s work less and spend more time doing what you love. For my grandfather, now 93, his goal has always been to take care of his family. After a lifetime of experiences, some no one should ever have, never once did he say, “Woe is me.” Instead his motto was forge ahead, work hard, save for a rainy day. He raised 3 children and celebrated with the addition of each of his 9 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.“I did it my way,” Papa said last week, reflecting back, as we were out for a walk on The Cape. “I helped put kids through college and helped pay for homes. It wasn’t so easy, but I did de best I could. Now I’m ready to go.”
Of course no one wants to hear a loved one talk about “checking out,” but Papa doesn’t say it out of depression as much as he’s ready, his checklist of accomplishments complete. Plus he’s tired, more from constant worrying than years spent working hard. He persevered, despite… well, we know what the despite is.
Over the last few years, the feedback he gets from readers of his life story saying it helped them get through their own hard times, now brings him hope. What a wonderful cycle.
Whenever I haven’t seen or spoken to Papa in awhile, this is how our conversations begin.
“How are book sales?”
“Are you busy working?”
“Are you saving money?”
“Good. Enjoy your life.”
“Enjoy your life” has become his new tag line. After nine decades that’s what he has deemed most important. And he should know after all those curve balls he had thrown at him.
Last week was the Jewish New Year and for the first time in years Papa was with us. Seated next to his 7-year-old great-grandson, the two were equally enamored with the other, hugging and talking all evening. It reminded me of the film “18 Again” when George Burns, at 81, turns into his 18-year-old grandson. Would Papa like to go through life again? If really given the opportunity, I would bet yes, though according to him, no, he’s prepared to go. But, as we all keep telling him, not yet.
Thinking outside the box has become a catch phrase for ideas not usually considered. There are several ways of coming up with these unconventional solutions: brainstorming, eliminating negative thoughts, even taking a shower. As an organizer, especially in New York City with limited space, finding new ways for storage is critical.
For example, when I was on ABC’s Good Morning America, Jon Berman joked about my having a “boot tower” hidden behind a chair. “Why so many boots?” he asked off camera. The answer was not because of a boot fetish or an Imelda Marcos obsession, but simply because in New York City walking is another mode of transportation. Sure sneakers are the obvious choice, but they’re not appropriate for every day and after awhile (and several miles) carrying shoes to change into starts to hurt your back.
In warmer months, women have more choices for footwear such as loafers and sandals, but as the weather changes, those choices are reduced. While they make wingtips for women, I don’t want a copy of a man’s shoe. I want something feminine that’s also fashionable, comfortable and keeps my feet happy and warm.
Which brings me back to that outside the box way of looking at things. Last spring I removed the old steam radiator from my bedroom since the living room and bathroom radiators do the job. The bedroom unit was under a window bench and I soon found myself with – get this – a 32”w x 23”h x 14”d storage space, approximately the size of a large box. For those in the burbs laughing right now, you’re going to have to take my word for it when I tell you this was heaven.
Immediately a list of what I could store came to mind. Toilet paper, luggage, cleaning supplies. The list was endless. Then I remembered my boots and soon ideas of how to store them came next. Sideways in boxes? On shelves? I looked on Pinterest.com, home of “outside the box” thinking, and that’s when I saw the solution. I drew a sketch and showed my personal carpenter, who’s like a wood whisperer. After one or two iterations and a few hours one afternoon, the idea, a simple idea really, became reality.
While thinking outside the box can be great, sometimes thinking inside the box works too.
Having followed in Henry David Thoreau’s footsteps once by living alone in a small dwelling, I did it again Sunday when I participated in The Last Gasp, a 62-mile bike ride across Cape Cod, from Sandwich to Provincetown. Turns out Thoreau once walked from one end of the Cape to the other, exploring each town along the way. And though I only stopped twice for a quick PB&J, I too discovered Cape Cod – the place where I grew up – from a whole new perspective.
Under a clear blue sky, with a slight wind (behind us, at first), I saw hidden ponds nestled beyond trees hinting at fall and sprawling cranberry bogs. My favorite sights were the well-wishers cheering from the road, encouraging my sore knees, while a smile sat plastered on my face. Dedicating the entire day to raising money for Spaulding Rehabilitation, I welcomed the rolling hills, of which there were many, that gave me time to think about the people I was riding for, and an overwhelming appreciation for the ability to do this ride.
Arriving at the finish line, we hopped off our bikes as volunteers loaded them onto UPS trucks, simultaneously unloading our tagged bags of clean clothes. Despite my desire of finding a hot shower, the well-oiled organization of the event was not lost on me. Hobbling to a designated hotel room for a brief (and I mean brief) shower, we changed and were shuttled to downtown P-town where, after inhaling a quick snack, we boarded a chartered ferry back to Sandwich. Cruising along the choppy water, the Cape’s shoreline to our left, a pod of dolphins appeared, diving in and out of the waves in unison, having a ball. Kind of like us riders, pedaling together for the same cause.
Back on land, we gathered our bikes and headed to the local American Legion for an authentic clambake. Chowder, little necks, lobster, corn on the cob, all with a smoky flavor, went down easily with the sun melting into the west. That night, sleep came swiftly, images of the day flashing through my memory on a loop, my smile still present. Days dedicated entirely to one cause are rare, our lives so often pulled in many directions. But having set aside my own To Do list to focus on this one task, gave me a sense of accomplishment much greater than crossing a bunch of things off a list. As for those responsibilities, well, isn’t that what Mondays are for?
Thanks again to everyone who donated to the ride!
Last Sunday found me at the bike shop, full of people coming and going with their two-wheelers. While waiting, an elderly man entered wearing red sneakers, cut off khakis, white tee shirt and an old-fashioned baseball cap with no brim, like a beanie. The hat was probably as old as he, the fabric worn, and the words “Little Slugger” stitched on a baseball on the front. He was carrying a bicycle tire. There was an air pump next to me and he bent down to use it.
“Would you like me to pump while you hold it?” I asked.
He looked up, his brown eyes smiling, his beanie somehow not falling off. “Thank you, but I can do it.” He looked back at the wheel, but suddenly back at me. “You know, when I was 12 I fixed a door lock.” He had an accent but I couldn’t place it. “If you know the material, if you know the purpose and if you know the energy of what it is supposed to do, you can fix anything.”
I smiled back and soon my bike was ready. As I walked out, I stopped by the man. “What are those three things again?” He followed me outside.
With the sun beating down on the corner of West 96th Street and Broadway, stories were shared between two strangers. “I was born in Israel, my parents dead by the time I was 11,” he said. “But I could fix things. I worked on that door knob a long time and when I heard that click.” He paused, closing his eyes as if remembering the sweet sound of his early success. “I then knew my purpose. The same principle is true with everything you want to accomplish.”
This 80-year-old had become the number one mechanic in Haifa before going into the army. He came to America in his 20s and had two marriages; the first for citizenship, the second for love. “My wife,” he said, looking in the distance and pausing to allow the wave of sadness to crest and fall, “is alive, but a vegetable. Very sad getting old and what do doctors know?” He waved his finger in the air. “Not much.”
The mechanic, whose name was Mike, rested his hand on my arm, pinching the skin a bit, something my paternal grandmother used to do when she spoke to me, causing now my eyes to tear. Then he nodded to my bike. “That is the best medicine,” Mike said. “And if you ever need it fixed, call me.” And as Mike gave me his phone number, I realized he’d already given me so much more.
“What’s life like after living in a tiny apartment?” asked Duarte Geraldino, correspondent for Al Jazeera America’s Real Money With Ali Velshi, last week in my apartment.
“I have a lot less bruises,” I joked. But the truth is, while I may no longer live “tiny,” I came away from living in those 90 square feet with an appreciation for living large. And I’m not talking about space.
Living in that small studio forced me to cut back on stuff, which as a result taught me that owning less stuff meant fewer hours spent putting that stuff away. I also came to realize that living in a smaller space meant fewer hours cleaning it, not to mention working fewer hours to pay a higher rent. In a nutshell, small space dwellers have more time to do the things they enjoy.
Now that I live in an apartment almost five times larger (though that’s not saying much), I am still living by those same lessons. Sure, I now have a couch and a kitchen, but I have the same amount of stuff that I did in the small apartment. It’s like someone who gets a huge pay increase and continues to live as though they’re making the original salary and saving the extra money. In a sense I’m saving the extra space. For what?
Glad you asked.
In the years I have lived in my new apartment I have had several parties, often filling my (extra) space with over 20 friends and family and never once feeling cramped. At one time living with less was a necessity, now it’s a choice. And I choose friends and family over stuff every time.
At sixteen, Driver’s Ed was nothing more than sitting in a stark classroom, fluorescent lights glaring overhead as the instructor drummed into our heads the dangers of drinking and driving. While his words were effective, the class would have been more useful had it included hands-on learning like changing a tire on the side of the road at night in the rain.
Fast-forward a few years to Defensive Driving courses available to get a discount on your car insurance or reduce points from your license. Sitting in yet another anonymous classroom or now conveniently at home online, while this class covers the repercussions of drinking and driving, it has changed with the times and spends more time on the dangers of texting and driving.
Both warnings are valid, but it’s Road Rage, that while covered, seems more dangerous, and lately, more prevalent.
Early one morning this summer, walking with my niece and nephew, a station wagon (who knew they still existed?) drove by. On instinct I put my arms out to shield the kids. The car passed and as it turned the corner, the female driver screamed out her window, “It would have been nice if you waved back!”
“Who are you?” I said, but she’d already driven away.
Then one Sunday my sister and I went for a 20-mile bike ride through quaint local towns on Cape Cod. As we neared a grassy airport offering bi-plane rides, some guy in an SUV yelled out his window, for no other reason than because he’d been forced to slow down to pass us, “Get on the sidewalk!”
This past weekend, while I was driving in Westchester, a truck came up close behind me flashing his lights and trying to pass. “Geez,” I thought, “what’s your hurry?” He soon passed me on a narrow stretch. “Jerk,” I thought. Then, just as I was thinking of some other choice words, he pulled into the fire station. And that’s when I saw it, his bumper sticker, the one showing he was a volunteer firefighter. All the anger I felt immediately flushed out of my system as I realized mixing anger and driving is more dangerous than any cocktail you can swallow.
Waking up in my New York City apartment the other morning after a blissful several weeks on Cape Cod, I felt like Dorothy waking up in Kansas after a long, delicious dream. Everything was back to black and white. And as my eyes adjusted to the smaller bedroom, it took me a few seconds to remember where I was.
I got out of bed and looked out the window. Instead of seeing green grass, trees and robins snacking at the bird feeder, I saw rows of buildings, water towers sprinkled on top with a clear view of my neighbor who never bothers to close his blinds nor put on clothing.
While preparing breakfast I thought of what had become my summer morning ritual – walking into the kitchen to find my parents seated at the table, sections of the Wall Street Journal spread out like seashells, hearing them say, “Good morning” to me as I made a peanut and banana sandwich and laced up my bike shoes. That routine was gone. Long gone.
I left my apartment and headed south, 30 blocks to work. Traffic and construction were already at ear splitting decibels and it wasn’t even 8 a.m. Walking down 9th Avenue I pictured the Cape Cod Canal where I’d biked almost every day and could still see the water at my side, seagulls gliding overhead. But that image was quickly erased as I was brought back down to reality having to step over a pinkish pile of someone’s dinner from the night before splattered on the sidewalk, dirty pigeons fighting to get a bite.
In a storefront window I caught my reflection. Black shirt and jeans; an ensemble I hadn’t worn in weeks. I thought of my colorful shorts, the ones with the red lobsters on them, neatly folded and put away for the season. I looked at my hair, blown out and pulled back, the soft curls replaced with the more sophisticated city style. Then there was the one accessory I hadn’t worn since before the Fourth of July – my New York City mask. Part scowl/part “Don’t even think about messing with me,” it’s one of the first things I put on in the morning and the last thing to come off at night. Then I laughed. I was back in the Big Apple. There’s no place like home.
My niece and nephew ask for things all day long; it’s part of being a kid. They can’t just hop in the car and drive to where they want to go. They need adults. Which is why they ask, “Can I have ice cream?” “Can I go to the arcade?” “Can I have this new toy?” While they don’t get everything they ask for, occasionally (especially when visited by a doting aunt) they do. Whatever they get is better than the nothing they would get if they didn’t ask.
Take it a step further.
One evening last year I was waiting for a friend in the lobby of the Time Warner building when a well-dressed man approached me. “You’re beautiful,” he said. “Can I take you to dinner?” Sure I was flattered, but as I kindly thanked him for the compliment and said no to his offer, I realized this guy probably approached several women with the same line. Maybe he asks 10, 20, even 100 women. His odds are such that one woman is probably going to say yes. Even if he asks 1,000 women, his odds are better than the zero percent he’d get if he sat at home watching another episode of House of Cards.
One more scenario.
As an author, one unpleasant part of the publishing process is sending out your manuscript. Self-publishing has eliminated this most dreaded task, but for those wanting to go the traditional route, it’s the only option. An author may send their work to 10, 20, even 100 publishers hoping that one will love it and agree to publish their masterpiece. But soon enough, responses begin to come in. One rejection. Another rejection. A third. And so on. Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and even Anne Frank’s diary were rejected many, many times. The one thing each of these authors didn’t do after each “No” they received, was give up. How different is that from a little kid asking for a candy bar every time they’re in the supermarket check out line?
So sure, while it may get a tad annoying when little kids ask repeatedly for something they want, occasionally getting it may just teach them the value of never giving up.