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Life’s Ups and Downs

elevator pitchLife coaches and headhunters suggest we have an “elevator pitch,” a quick line to help you “sell” yourself at a moment’s notice. According to Forbes, “It should be a 30-second speech that summarizes who you are, what you do and why you’d be a perfect candidate.” I’ve had mine ready ever since my book about my grandfather came out in case I was ever stuck in an elevator with Steven Spielberg.

As I was leaving Central Park after a five-mile walk yesterday (all sweaty, as you can imagine) I saw him. Spielberg. He was walking towards me. When you see someone you’ve only ever seen on television, it takes your brain a moment to register the enormity of the situation because they’re out of context. Years ago I saw Caroline Kennedy in Central Park. Since we were the only two people around, I started up a conversation about Centerville, the town I grew up in that’s near the Kennedy Compound. She was all too happy to chat about Four Seas Ice Cream.

But when I saw Spielberg, my elevator pitch…

“Hello Mr. Spielberg, I just want to thank you. I am a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and after seeing Schindler’s List was inspired to write the book “What Papa Told Me” about my grandfather’s life. My book is being taught in schools and sold around the world. It’s from a grandchild’s perspective and could make an interesting movie.”

… went out the window.

I’m always hesitant to intrude when I see someone famous on the street (Kennedy being an exception), but this was the one person I’d been hoping to see. Of course I’d been planning on being inside the safety of four elevator walls so maybe that’s why my pitch stuck in my throat. Seconds after passing him, I began kicking myself. “When are you ever going to get that chance again?”

I can’t beat myself up over the fact I failed to execute my elevator pitch. Instead I will chalk it up to being considerate of his privacy. However, the next time I see Mr. Spielberg you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be ready to pitch the game of my life.


sup fcAfter a summer spent atop my Stand Up Paddle Board (SUP), with ducks overhead, fish below, and snapping turtles snapping at whatever it is they snap at, I’ve been witness to the annual shift of summer into autumn. The ever so slight change in sunlight from warm to neutral, the trees showing hints of red, and all the neighbors’ inflatable rafts, now deflated and rolled up, their masters back at school. As I get ready to hang up my own SUP for the season (stretched two weeks longer by stubbornness alone), it dawned on me what similarities exist between standup paddle boarding and everyday challenges.

For starters, balance is key. In order to stay upright on an SUP, your feet need to be firmly planted on the board, your weight
distributed evenly. Like in life, you need to be “grounded.” You need a plan, a direction and a determination not to fall into the drink. But in addition to balance, which is mostly non-movement, you also need a generating force or “oomph.” Some days, especially after bicycling, I was too tired to paddle. I had no oomph. However, since my days on Cape Cod were running short, I wanted to take advantage of every available moment, even if it meant pushing myself. Again, like in life.

pond reflectBalance on an SUP is not just physical. We need to be aware of the wind and the current – two natural forces out of our control – and determine if they will help or hurt us? Being cognizant of these possible obstacles and either navigating around them or dealing with them head-on reflects even another parallel with life.

lily padsA few times I underestimated the wind and current and found myself in the middle of a very large, very windy, white capped pond, and me with just a paddle. I was spun around, forced to my knees, trying to calculate the most direct route home. I realized I had to let the paddleboard take its own responsibility, by using its own shape and weight to follow its own direction, all getting me the heck back to shore.

It worked. Once my feet were safely back on sand, I took a few moments for quiet gratitude before heading home, looking forward to resuming the conversation the next day between the pond, the paddleboard and me.

“Rides” of Passage

Many events mark the rite of passage: first day of school, getting your driver’s license, retirement. But what about those subtle ones, like a first kiss or that first grey hair?

papa chairWe celebrated two family birthdays in August: my nephew’s eighth and my grandfather’s 94th. Though years apart on the life spectrum, each got a new set of wheels. My grandfather was far from happy with his. It’s a Transport Chair, a smaller version of a wheelchair. To him it signifies another step in his decline. Though he resisted, now he jokes, “My throne.” As for my nephew’s new ride? It came from Toys ‘R Us.

“I can get anything?” Andrew asked when we entered the store, his hand in mine.

“Yes,” I said, wanting to add, “Especially if you keep holding my hand.”

He led us down the gun aisle. His hand slipped from mine when he reached for a plastic weapon. “Anything?” he said.

I smiled. “Yes, anything but that.”

His shoulders fell as he returned the rifle, but was soon excited when we approached a wall of remote controlled vehicles. “A Corvette! A helicopter!” His brain was comparing the price with the gift card I got him.

“Which one do you want?” I asked.

andrewHe took my hand again. “Let’s keep looking.”

We passed Legos and board games and soon reached the bicycles and scooters. His eyes lit up. “This scooter makes sparks!” Andrew grabbed the display model off the shelf. Before I could say, “Be careful,” he was flying down one aisle and reappearing up another. After a dozen laps, he stopped. “Can I get this one?”

“Do you promise to wear a helmet?” I said.

“I promise.”

“Then yes, the scooter is yours.”

At home we assembled the scooter together. Then he put on a helmet and my elbow pads on his knees and took off down the street. Using his back foot to stop, it caused sparks to fly out. “So cool!” he exclaimed.

The scooter is just the first in what will be a procession of “wheels” for my nephew. There will be bicycles, a first car, a second car, a sixth. Then a few decades and a generation from now really, when I’m no longer around to hold his hand, perhaps he’ll get a red chair with wheels, just like Papa’s, his kids convincing him it’s for his own safety. He’ll probably resist too. Not because he doesn’t need it, but because he will still remember a time when his legs moved him fast as lightening down a tree-lined street, on a scooter, his aunt videotaping him, the wind on his face.

Letter to My Niece

Dear Paige,

"Are these all your T-shirts?"

“Are these all your T-shirts?”

I meant to leave this letter hidden under your pillow when we dropped you at soccer camp. I wanted you to find it that night when you crawled into bed, surrounded by your new friends in the neighboring bunk beds. I, along with your mother, little brother and grandfather, were filled with many emotions when we left you in Bunk 83.

Your initial reaction to not being placed in the same bunk with the only two girls you knew – a bit teary-eyed and scared – was completely normal. And though your mom tried to rectify the situation, I knew – we all did – that you would be fine. No, scratch that. You would be more than fine. But it’s hard to explain that to an eleven-year-old girl about to be left alone for the first time in her life.

camp bunk

Last hug before abandonment.

You had been so confident in the days leading up to camp, but after we parked and herded your stuff toward registration, your confidence slipped a little. That too is normal. Trust me. But I’ve got to tell you Paige, despite the housing mix-up, you took it like a champ. I took real pride watching you organize your cubby, lining up the bottles of Gatorade, shower supplies and soccer gear even though you were still (sort of) hoping to be switched. But then another girl arrived, a first-timer also, and we watched you, amazed by the effortless way you made small talk. Your mother Jackie and I smiled at each other as we made your bed. “She’ll be fine,” I mouthed to Jackie, who herself appeared relieved as well. In that instant I had a flashback to my own first day of camp. I was 12. Jackie, 8, was there too. We were standing behind my bunk, me, homesick and in tears, Jackie offering comfort, telling me I would be “fine.” Now here we were, three decades later, passing the torch.

End of Day One. A genuine smile.

End of Day One. A genuine smile.

The lesson I learned then, the one you may not fully understand until years from now, is that sleep-away camp is a first step in becoming a well-adjusted adult, another skillset in your personal arsenal for survival that will prove useful in many other firsts that are just ahead for you: first day of high school, first day of college, a new job or even a party. To be able to enter a room not knowing a soul is difficult, but you can do it. You know that now because you did it.

I can’t wait to be there when we pick you up from camp and hear about the wonderful time you had. Just as I can’t wait to watch you flourish in so many other ways too.

Love always,

Auntie Felice

The Lesson

Here we are, thcanale end of July and my annual month on Cape Cod is coming to an end. And though this winter will probably fly by, still, it’s a long wait to July 1, 2016.

As usual, it’s been a super fun month. Daily bike rides along the Canal, stand up paddle boarding on our pond, late afternoon strolls on the beach after the tourists have gone back to their motel rooms (Cape Codders know this is the best time to visit the beach), barbeques, evening ice cream cones, even a seal cruise in Orleans, and just an all around good time spent with friends and relatives who come for visits.

sealBut no “Felice Vacation” is complete without projects accomplished. The garage freed of another year’s accumulation, the backyard shed cleaned out (and dead mice removed, thanks George!), closet clutter removed, etc. Yet despite the good feeling I get when I’ve returned from another trip to the dump or to Goodwill, I always am conscious of the money spent to acquire these expendables. I’m not the only one who thinks about this.

palm pilot“This may not work,” Dad said, removing a first generation Palm Pilot in pristine condition from the garbage. “But it’s a classic… and it was expensive.”

paddleI sighed. “I know it was, but still, it’s worthless now.”

At one point everything we bought was for a good reason: to wear, to read or for “efficiency.” On very many occasions though, in time the item will become irrelevant. It breaks, shrinks, or is superseded by Version X. (The last Palm Pilot update was at least 10 years ago.)

So how do you keep your possession-bulk at a reasonable level? I’ve concluded that you simply have to be merciless when it comes to purchasing in the first place. Ask, “Do I really need this or am I buying it mostly because I can?” We can justify disposal by giving our “Buh-byes” to those in need, but if we keep buying stuff we don’t need, guess who’s going to become the needy one?

As I wrestled the Palm Pilot from my dad’s hands, he said, “But the kids might like to play with it.” I pointed out that the kids would take one look at it and when they realized it didn’t connect to Wi-Fi, it would be discarded faster than the dead mice from our shed.

Thus ended the lesson.

The Right Stuff Vs. The Wrong Stuff

box stuffFrom the get-go we accumulate Baby Stuff. Diapers, bottles, onesies. Next comes Adolescent Stuff like Lincoln Logs, Barbies, board games, baseball gloves and elementary school artwork too “special” to toss that will fill space under the bed. By the time we head off to college, however, that stuff is left behind without so much as a backwards glance.

Then there’s College Stuff. Textbooks, sweatshirts and shot glasses. (Oh my!) Those four years of further accumulation fly by faster than you can say, “Yard Sale” and before you know it, that stuff is brought home and piled atop your Childhood Stuff.

But now you’re on the verge of adulthood and it’s time to say, “buh bye” to Past Stuff so you can make room for Future Stuff. Don’t promise your folks you’ll be back to get your stuff once you’re settled. Get rid of it now, especially if you’re meshing your stuff with your Partner’s Stuff, because I’ll tell you right now, adulthood is all about acquiring More Stuff.

boxes stuffWedding gifts, baby clothes and weekly trips to Home Goods will quickly engulf your home. It’s only years later do you wake up overwhelmed thinking, “Where did all this stuff come from?!” That’s when you grab that Hefty Cinch sack and start tossing. But beware, you will suffer through the realization of how you could have used the money that went into buying all That Stuff towards your mortgage or that dream vacation.

It’s a fact most of the people in your home will eventually move out and soon that art studio you always wanted becomes possible, but not yet. Somehow there’s still Extra Stuff to purge. But then one day (one day!) you will reach your goal where you’re down to only the Right Stuff, the things you really love, and life is suddenly leisurely. At least for a while.

You see, with age comes Senior Stuff and that, my friends, is a whole ‘nother story. Soon your dream art studio may need to make room for a walker or a stand-up chair. And it’s in that chair where you might spend most of your time looking around at whatever stuff you still have and think, “If only I had spent more time collecting memories.”

Don’t let Things Stuff get in the way of the Right Stuff.

What Papa Told Me. Yes, There’s More

“How was your vacation?” asked a friend.papa smile

“What vacation?” I said.

“Weren’t you just down in Florida?”

Oh, that.

In the last year or so, visits to my grandfather are no longer a holiday. His mind is still sharp, but these trips have become more to “papa-sit.” He’ll be 94 in August and life has become cruel to him once again. There are moments he forgets that his body aches, that he still misses Nana or that he can’t do anything for himself. But those moments are precious and few.

papa thnks“Papa, how do you feel?” I ask.

“How I feel? How my enemies should feel,” Papa says.

The irony of his life is palpable. During his five years in the camps he barely had enough to eat, so when he came to America, is it any surprise he owned a grocery store? And now, even though his fridge is stocked, his taste buds have turned on him.

“I have everything,” Papa says, shaking his head. “And I can’t eat.”

He has a daily homecare aide, but on my visits I do the overnights. I have the routine down. After dinner, mostly a protein shake, he watches TV in his special chair, me at his side ready to get him water, a warm compress for his eyes or to assist him to the bathroom. Every day is a struggle, every basic human need requires help.

“Sometimes I think take me away,” Papa says. “It’s enough. It’s enough.”papa young

At nine we check his sugar one last time before bed. These are the nice moments, quiet, another day done. One evening, the two of us were in the kitchen, him slowly eating a bowl of vanilla ice cream to raise his sugar before sleep, and me pointing out the window.

“Look Papa, there’s a full moon.”

Without turning around, Papa continues staring into his bowl of melting ice cream. “It’s looking down here, how the people are,” he says.

“And how are the people?” I ask.

papa ice creamHe looks up at me, slightly confused by the question, then his face softens and he shrugs. “How should dey be? Fine I guess.”

We sit a little longer. Papa, squinting through eyes that are beginning to fade, scans the refrigerator of pictures of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, his “dividends,” he calls them. I watch his expression and a hint of a smile appears. I know that smile. He’s proud.

“Without education, without college, I did it,” he says. “I did it my way.”

Yes, Papa, you certainly did.pool

The Gift

Spring-cleaning may leave you feeling pretty good, but it’s the summertime version that results in real satisfaction. Remember how good it felt at the end of the school year when you returned textbooks, tossed homework and chucked those stubby pencils? It was the result of a job well done, another school year under your belt. Even now, years after my last school semester ended, I practice those same rituals, disposing past work from completed projects.

Last week my sister Jackie and I spent a morning at our parent’s Cape Cod home where we grew up. We had been waiting for summer to tackle her childhood bedroom closet and the day was at hand. Unlike me, Jackie hadn’t been blessed with the “the gift” of being organized, but she has gotten better.

That afternoon we went to my nephew’s elementary school. Jackie had volunteered to read to her son’s class. As the second-graders listened to the story, I looked around the room. It was obvious it was the end of the year as the walls usually covered with kid’s drawings and posters of maps had bare spots and the recycle bin was full.andrews desk

When the bell rang the kids sprung into action. Schoolwork put away, lunchboxes stuffed into backpacks, and books returned to shelves. During the chaos I glimpsed inside many of the desks. Most were a mess, as you can imagine a seven-year-old’s desk to be, but there was one that stood out. It looked like it could have been mine. Papers piled neatly to one side, books to the other, with pencils gathered together.

Over the years I’ve been asked how one pursues becoming a professional organizer. Sure you can learn how to utilize containers, but the drive to being organized has to come from within.

As the students lined up by the door, my smiling nephew proudly held open the lid of his desk while I reached for my cell phone. The girl next to him, watching us, said, “Sometimes my desk is as neat as Andrew’s, but it doesn’t last. His desk is always neat.”

I winked at my nephew. He has the gift.

Thanks for the Memories

memories 1We all have memories. A photo, a trinket or maybe even a scar can trigger them. Some are good, some not. What is baffling is how some memories of an event remain clear years later; while others are forgotten soon after they’ve occurred.

What then, makes a memory stick? Joyous occasions, like weddings and graduations? Or a personal traumatic event? Or perhaps moments that change the course of history. Everyone remembers where he or she was on 9/11. But why aren’t those little moments in between the big ones remembered? Do they not count if we don’t remember them? Is that why we’re posting every mundane moment online instead of actually appreciating the moment in the moment?

If it takes lots of memories to build our life’s journey, what about those bumper stickers telling us, “You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you’re still re-reading the last one” or “Don’t look back you’re not going that way”? Should we forget everything from our past? Or just weed out the bad chunks, like a divorce or when a loved one dies? And if we’re really cleaning house, what about those painful memories lingering from high school that still trigger raw emotions and awkward dreams?

memories 2Perhaps those maxims are actually telling us not to forget the bad times, but to let go of the resentments attached to them. Maybe that’s the key to moving on. In the last four years I have spoken to thousands of people about my grandfather’s experiences in the Holocaust and every talk ends with the words, “We can never forget.” I didn’t live through that horrendous ordeal, but my grandfather, who’s going to be 94 in August, did. After losing his entire family and surviving indescribable treatment, what kept him forging ahead and becoming successful and starting anew, was not forgetting. His goal was to create a new family to replace all those he lost and prove life was still worth living. The pain of the past pushed him to live a full life and to give all that he could.

Memories make us who we are. But it’s how we remember those memories that make us who we are to become.

Diversion Therapy

It’s spring, both officially and in the air. The sun streaming through our windows brings comfort. But the shining sun also highlights the dust bunnies. All of them. And there are many.

bunny of dustWhile in a downward dog this morning, I glanced to my right. Big mistake. There, under the couch, a nightmare. Later, my hand swiped the counter and, whoa, what was that? More dust? Seriously? I cleaned it last night. I can’t even talk about the feet on my kitchen stools. It’s like dust bunnies go there to meet other dust bunnies.

As an organizer whose home has a place for everything, what I don’t have room for is dust. Yet there it is, everywhere, haunting me. No matter how many times I vacuum, Swiffer and mop, they remain, hiding in plain sight. The worse thing is that they keep me from focusing on work. I need to wipe them away before I can do anything.

In college, my roommate Stacey and I were easily distracted by our sweaters. Those lilting piles called out to us to be refolded. We ignored them, looked away, even turned our backs in our tiny Z-Room in Kennedy Hall, but at some point it became fruitless. Inevitably, we put down our pencils and Texas Instrument calculators, and refolded them, planning to get right back to our X’s and Y’s. But once the sweaters were refolded, the T-shirts now looked messy in comparison and so, well, we had no choice but to refold those as well.

Of course these chores didn’t take long, but it did take us away from our work. All these years later I find myself once again distracted. This time by dust. (Well, today anyway, I did the sweaters last week).

It’s easy to get sidetracked during the course of the day. It’s life. How then, do you keep your butt in the seat? There’s no one solution, the trick is finding what works for you. Today that solution is a big, fat bribe. If I get my blog done, plus a few other items crossed off my To Do list, then I can go for a bike ride later this afternoon and enjoy this beautiful spring day.

Until then, the dust bunnies can wait.


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