The good part about having an organizer in your family is that you get free closet makeovers. The bad part is… if you’re the organizer. This does not mean I don’t enjoy organizing my mom’s closet every time I go home (or my sisters’, my dad’s, etc.). But there is one person whose closet I’ve organized dozens of times and assumed I would continue to do so for years to come: my Uncle Mark, who’s always been more like an older brother. The first time I redid his closet was when I moved in with him in 1996 and needed room for my things. Over the years, even after I moved out, it became a ritual and usually went like this:
Felice: “Mark, this sweatshirt has a stain. Donate it.”
Mark: “But it’s my favorite. The stain isn’t that bad.”
Last August my uncle called me in the middle of the day. “I need you to pick me up and take me to Sloan Kettering.” He’d had an issue with his blood for years, but he was treating it. By October it was confirmed: Leukemia. He got put on a trial. He started chemo. He was getting better. Soon we hoped he’d get a bone marrow transplant (my mom and another uncle were matches) and be okay. But Christmas Eve we got the call: Mark passed away. It was less than two weeks after Papa, a one-two punch.
Last week I found myself in a familiar spot: in front of Mark’s closet. This time, what had become a pastime, I would be doing for the very last time. I removed a sweatshirt. “Mark, this has a stain,” I said, making believe he was in the other rom. “Donate it.” I went to add it to the giveaway pile, but stopped. Instead I put it on. It was swimming on me (my uncle was over six feet). I wrapped my arms around myself, imagining it to be my uncle hugging me one last time and cried. Then I caught a glimpse of the stain. “You know what?” I said out loud. “The stain isn’t that bad.” And then I smiled because I had found my new favorite sweatshirt.
At my grandfather’s funeral this past Wednesday, I walked up to the pulpit, lifted my cell phone to my ear and said to everyone, “I’m sorry, I really need to take this call.” Then, ignoring their shocked expressions, I spoke into the phone.
“Hi Papa! How was your trip? God, we miss you already. Yes, everyone’s fine, they’re all here and say hi. Yes, everything was as you planned, you made it super easy. What? No, I’m not wearing a skirt. Yes, we all rode here together in a limo. Don’t worry, Sidney had a coupon. Yes, we’ll give the driver a good tip. Sure, I’ll send everyone your love. Talk to you soon. Love you.” Then I hung up, looked out at the smiling faces of family and friends and said, “Papa says hi.”
In that brief moment as I pretended to speak to Papa, we all forgot our sadness, forgot that he was gone, because in those few seconds I brought him back to life. In truth, I brought my grandfather back to life five years earlier when our book came out. At 89, Papa was feeling the affects of old age and sufferings past, but the book sparked a renewed will to live, validating his survival and showed him he still had much to offer.
And even though he’s now gone, he still has much to offer.
In the last few years Papa and I spent a lot of time together sitting in his kitchen eating ice cream in our pajamas and talking about life or at speaking engagements to hundreds of school children. But of all the lessons Papa taught me about saving money and being a good person, the most important came from working alongside him in his Brooklyn grocery store.
I was eight years old when I first put on his white apron and stepped behind the counter to work the cash register. Papa trusted me to give the correct change. Working side by side, watching this larger than life figure slice pastrami behind the deli counter, reading glasses perched on top of his head, a smile on his face, never felt like work, just time spent with Papa.
Years later, trusting me once again, Papa handed me his life’s story. And in all the years I spent writing, editing and researching the book, it never felt like work, just, once again, time with Papa. The amazing thing is, all this time I thought the book was a gift from me to him, but now, I realize, it was Papa who had given me the gift. And the only way I can ever repay him is by continuing to talk about the man who, if it hadn’t been for his courage and determination to survive, I would not be here today.
Thank you Papa.
Here is a link to Murray Schwartzbaum’s Obituary in the New York Times
The other day I played Go Fish and won. I mean, like, I crushed it. That’s not saying much considering it was only a child’s card game, but still. I won because each time I asked for a card, when my opponent didn’t have it, the pile did. You see, I “picked my wish” almost every time.
That got me thinking: what else should I be asking for? Asking is often how we get what we want, like directions, help with moving something heavy or even a raise. Sure we don’t always get what we ask for, like wanting to be taller (I know, I’ve tried), but by not asking, we’re certainly not going to get it. Like hockey great Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” So just by asking, we increase our chances by 50%.
With holiday shopping in full gear, no one who knows the power of “asking” more than children. They write Christmas lists, letters to Santa, and text their aunt. The best example is in the movie A Christmas Story where Ralphie repeatedly asks: “I want an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle!” And he gets one.
Asking for things says a lot about ourselves. As we get older our “asks” turn from toys to success and health (okay, and maybe an orange scooter). But many don’t ask for things, kind of like letting their wishes go to waste. Asking for something – saying it out loud or writing it down – won’t guarantee its appearance, but putting it out into the “universe” may help it settle into our consciousness and sharpen our aim, pushing us to work harder toward getting it or at least recognizing the signs along the way. Either way, as my Nana Banana used to say, “It couldn’t hurt.”
My friend Natalie and I caught up on the phone last week, the bulk of our conversation about the people we know currently going through a change, whether a job, relationship or even moving.
“This seems to be the year of endings,” said Natalie, who then named six people she knows who are divorcing, their ages ranging from 25 to 65. “Either they jumped in too soon or-”
“They finally had enough,” I finished her sentence for her.
Whether you’re dealing with the end of a relationship, a career, or even just making a shift in your life, though the process can be daunting, there’s a catch to endings: they’re also a chance for new beginnings. A chance to start over, to do it right, or simply try something new.
That doesn’t make change any less scary. Many avoid it, fearful they’ll never find another partner or job or (fill in the blank). So they remain in a situation “that’s okay, not great.” But what if you knew that as hard as it was to take that leap, you were guaranteed a soft landing? Would you then jump without a second thought?
Years ago I made that leap. Truthfully, I was pushed. I’d been living in a two-bedroom with my Uncle Mark in the Bronx when he (lovingly) told me it was time we lived on our own. So I chose to move into a shoebox. Friends and family told me I was nuts. At first I wasn’t sure they were wrong. Not only was I living in a space slightly larger than most people’s walk-in closets, but I quit my high-paying job so I could finish writing my first book, leaving me solely responsible for my own health coverage, not to mention, living alone in New York City.
Turns out, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Any significant change may appear out of reach, but often it’s not. Journeys begin with one simple step. Then another. And another. And even if you never reach the destination, at least you tried. Which is really what the journey is all about.
Fit Bit? Me? No way. The only motivation needed for me to take a walk is my sneakers. Or someone asking. Even if I’ve already biked 30 miles, I’m like the postal service, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat…” I’m down for a walk.
Up until the end of September I had health benefits. But then my job went “poof!” and along with it, my doctors. Before my benefits ended I checked my options. From Obama Care to Cobra, it didn’t take long for my eyes to glaze over, the myriad of options confusing. Just as I was about to pick Cobra and hand over my life’s savings, I met Oscar. Oscar is a new health care company whose motto is: “Smart, simple health insurance.” The site is clean and easy to navigate. I called and a real person answered. The rep spent a half hour helping me choose the best coverage plan for my needs. All I had to submit was my letter of termination (which I did by taking a picture with my phone and emailing it). Soon I was accepted. Relief flooded through me as I could continue to bike ride without worry.
A few days later a friendly info guide arrived in the mail explaining how Oscar worked. There are doctors on call 24/7, free generic drugs, a partial reimbursement for gym membership and a free Misfit (like a Fitbit). Then I read the not-so-fine print. Every day you reach your goal steps, you get $1 towards an Amazon gift card, with the potential for $240 a year. For something I do anyway? Sign me up.
The Misfit arrived and it took minutes to link to the Oscar app. My first day’s goal was 2,000 steps. I did over 14,000. The next day’s goal was 10,000. Again, I crushed it. The third day I was busier and when I was almost home, checked my total steps: 7,000. Despite being tired, I walked a few extra blocks until I hit my goal. That’s when it hit me. With “annual health costs related to obesity in the U.S. nearly $200 billion,” according to The Campaign to End Obesity, it seems like health care companies could spend less if they took a proactive approach instead by paying folks to get off their keisters and walk. Kind of like common sense healthcare.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, all Americans could use to take a few more steps. People don’t listen to warnings about eating unhealthy, but maybe they’d listen to free money. Getting healthy takes baby steps. Wouldn’t it be motivating to get paid to take them?
A few new clients have contacted me lately, desperate to rid their homes of the clutter that has them imprisoned inside. One in particular, a married mother of two toddlers, called me in dire straits.
“There’s stuff everywhere,” she said. “Toys, luggage, linens, laundry, shoes, paper. I’m at my wit’s end. Can you help?”
Of course I can help. I’ve been helping for over 25 years. I’m fast and efficient, but I don’t come cheap.
“That’s a lot for something I can do myself,” she said. “So why haven’t you done it?” I asked gently. After a pause, she said, “Because I’m too overwhelmed.”
Which is why she called a professional. I look at a mountain of stuff and plan an attack strategy: what gets tossed, kept, grouped together and where it belongs.
The mother of two hired me for four hours as a trial run. I went downtown to her spacious two-bedroom loft and after four hours whirling around their million-dollar home, I made a substantial dent. Needless to say, when the four hours were up, the client hired me back.
What I’m always curious about are clients who say they cannot afford me yet one look around their homes and I know the piles of stuff (some with price tags still on it), didn’t just appear; they were bought. And that cost far outweighs my fee to organize it. Some people put more value on tangible items, like pocketbooks and vases, rather than on the quality of their lives. And that’s okay. Everyone’s entitled to spend their money how they like. But in some cases, like a home with not one surface uncovered (including chairs and couches), what you cannot afford is NOT getting the help you need. Just like how a bankruptcy attorney can free you of debt, a professional organizer can free you from the chokehold of your stuff.
Life 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.
After 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.
Balance 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.
A 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.
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?
We 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.