Tuesday, July 29, 2014


I have probably met only a handful of people in my life whom I would call charismatic.

They weren’t the loud people at the center-of-attention. They were the ones cheerfully watching everyone, asking them questions about themselves and listening to the answers. I remember meeting parents from my kids’ new school at a pot-luck. The loudest ones were broadcasting who they were and what they did and how much money they made – but then there was the mother who saw the young assistant teacher sitting alone and went over to bring her into the conversation. That mother turned out to be, by far, the most charismatic (and not incidentally, most successful) of the bunch.

“Charisma” is hard to define. The word comes from the ancient Greek for “gift.” Authors of present-day articles often list famous people who have charisma – Oprah, Bill Clinton. Those celebrities may very well be charismatic, but I don’t think you can recognize charisma from a distance.

Many of these articles claim you can develop, through effort, charisma in yourself. But their advice is often to focus on yourself and how you are acting and reacting. One suggests that, if you feel yourself drifting in a conversation, to think of your toes. The idea is that will make you look like you are paying attention.

This advice misses the point.

Richard Branson calls charisma another word for self-confidence and I think he’s right. The people I’ve met who are charismatic seem to have dodged the need to boast and the tendency to be cowed by other people’s boasting. They are secure enough that they don’t care.

That frees up a tremendous amount of bandwidth they can use for doing what they want.

And that security is rare enough that it dazzles the rest of us.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Through A Glass Darkly

Ray Ban Classic Aviator
The only sunglasses I like are classic aviators.

Please note: I am not saying you have to wear aviator sunglasses. You can put any foolish contraption you like on your face.

I just don’t understand why you would.

Aviator sunglasses, the first Ray Ban sunglasses, were invented in 1936 for pilots and first became popular among the general public when General MacArthur was photographed wearing them in the ‘40s. The lenses of aviator sunglasses are large and slightly convex to cover as much of the eye as possible, important for pilots – and also for me. I hate when light “leaks” in around smaller sunglasses. They are utilitarian – the metal frame as thin as it can be – and, I happen to think, they look good on pretty much everybody.

I do not understand the appeal of what Wikipedia calls “oversized” or “Jackie O” sunglasses. Wikipedia goes on to point out that Elton John wore such sunglasses in the 1980s. But people still wear them today – and I just don’t get it. Thick plastic frames, sometimes white, with large, ornate curlicues, lettering, even pictures on the sides.

Do you want people to pay attention to your face or to the strange and ugly device you’ve placed upon it?

I remember when I picked out one of my first pair of prescription eyeglasses, at about age 14. I was looking for glasses that would disappear on my face: thin frames, gold-colored because that matched my skin and hair color the closest. The woman at the store, trying to upsell me, brought out thick plastic frames in "trendy" colors, told me she could polish the edge of the lenses to make them shiny and affix cursive letters, my initials perhaps, maybe a little picture of a rose, on the lenses.

Sometimes, less is more.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Things I Don’t Miss As My Children Grow Up

Car seats. Infernal contraptions, virtually impossible to install correctly.

Car sickness. A particular incident, involving the reappearance of a large amount of Cheetos, all over the car seat (see above) and car, is seared into my memory.

Being responsible for other people’s bodily functions. When children feel like they are going to throw up, they run toward you – and you’re not supposed to run away.

Potty training. Some people snidely wonder why young parents might procrastinate on potty training. It’s because, when you take that diaper off, you’ve just made your life a whole lot more complicated for the foreseeable future. There is no such thing as a convenient time for your child to poop his pants.

Getting to school on time in the morning. There’s a period in the raising of a child when you are the only one who can tell time and the only one who cares.

(Some) children’s books, movies and music. My kids were the only ones in their preschool classes who didn’t know the Barney clean-up song. I didn’t know it was a prerequisite. Even if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to abide watching it with them.

Flying with small children. When I get on a plane now, carrying just the book I will be reading, I look on the young parents, weighed down with car seats (see above) and gargantuan diaper bags, with pity.

Disgusted strangers. Yes, sometimes babies and toddlers cry on planes. But you know what? Strangers who roll their eyes and make snide comments for the parents to hear make the situation worse, not better.

Things I Miss As My Kids Grow Up

Playgrounds. It was nice to sit on a shade-dappled bench reading or chit-chatting with parents and sitters while the kids played.

(Some) kids’ music, like They Might Be Giants and Trout Fishing in America.

(Some) kids’ movies. Shrek, Toy Story: some of the best movies are made for kids.

Children’s books. Picture books can be so unbelievably beautiful.

Reading aloud. We read aloud A LOT at our house. Sometimes still will, when I can get someone to listen. The Narnia Chronicles (twice), The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (each twice), Harry Potter (literally lost count, at least four times), Sherlock Holmes (a surprise big hit). Incidentally, the best audio book, for readers of any age, is Neil Gaiman reading his own The Graveyard Book.

Firefighters. Have no excuse to wave anymore. And when they invited my small kids to go ahead and climb around inside their trucks or admired the fire-truck pictures on my toddler’s light-up sneakers, I admit, my heart melted.

Amusement parks. “Adult” rides there are just a travail. Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds, on which you look ridiculous unless in the company of a child, are more my speed.

Volunteering in class. My son’s earliest teachers “cooked” regularly in their classrooms. (Mostly, it was constructing things out of frosting and pretzel sticks.) And if reading aloud to a couple of kids is fun, reading to a whole class, most of them trying to lean on you, is even more fun.

The zoo. I still sometimes end up there, when my arty daughter sketches and takes photos. But it’s hard to beat being with a small child as a goat eats out of her hand.

Snow. Not as magical without a kid.

Christmas, Easter, Halloween, losing a tooth when there’s still a believer in the house.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Why Not A Job Well Done?

My husband and daughter needed passports.

It was mildly complicated to set up. You need to call to schedule an appointment at a post office near you, get a very specific type of photo, assemble your documents, print out a form (which one is not clear) from a website.
For my daughter, once at the post office, though, the woman who did the paperwork was pleasant and got the job done in about 10 minutes.
Then my husband went. The first thing he heard was, “You filled out the form in blue ink; it needs to be black.”

He said, “As soon as she opened her mouth, I knew I wasn’t getting my passport.”

Ink color wasn’t a problem for my daughter and she had used the very same pen.
Then, my husband’s person went on her break while he rewrote the form.
He was right: he did have to go back another day (and he made sure to go to a different post office) to get the job done.
I was standing in a supermarket line. The man ahead of me had an armful of items. He didn’t know if he could put them down on the belt, though. The cashier was running it, holding a cleaning rag on it to wipe it, and she was doing so assiduously, with a sour face, pointedly not looking at him.

So, we both stood there, wondering what her problem was.
My first job, at 16, was as at a Sears. The other kids who worked with me used to lurk in the clothing racks so they didn’t have to wait on anyone.
I totally don’t get that. Why not just do the job you are there for, with a good attitude? It takes MORE energy, and creates a poisonous atmosphere to boot, when you don’t.
OK, off soapbox.

Monday, July 14, 2014

I Love Cape Cod!

©Diana Thomson
Specifically, the Lower Cape, which, if you look at a map, is actually the upper part.

Years ago, a merchant marine I met in a bar explained it was “lower” because of the way sailors read a compass. Or maybe because of the winds. “The same way Maine is known as ‘Down East,’” he concluded. (I never really got it.)

This part, also known as the Outer Cape, extends from Wellfleet through Truro to Provincetown and is different from the rest. It is very narrow. You never feel out of reach of the ocean. This affects the light – lines look sharper, colors brighter –and that light has been attracting artists since the late 1800s.

President Kennedy established the Cape Cod National Seashore. More than half of the Lower Cape is park land, never to be developed.

Interestingly, the look of the land – sand dunes and scrubby pines – is not natural. When the Pilgrims first landed, in Provincetown before deciding to establish themselves at Plymouth, the Cape was covered in deciduous forest. Settlers, however, cut down all those trees, for firewood and houses.

Historically, the Outer Cape was always remote, so you see the prim farmhouses still in Wellfleet but that gives way to the rough country ways of Truro. And Provincetown is its own thing. In an old book on Cape history (it might still be sitting on the shelves of the Truro library), I read that Provincetown was settled from the sea by sailors and was known, to the pious citizens who could see its lights from Wellfleet, as the Province Lands, also Helltown.  For many years, because of sand dunes, a road could not be maintained to Provincetown. As soon as a railway could be built (it ran along the bayside beaches of Truro because no one valued ocean views then), the artists arrived, also gay people. (The Atlantic House a Provincetown bar that has been gay-friendly for at least 100 years, is commonly considered the oldest gay bar in the United States.)

My favorite thing is how everybody basically gets along, from New York sophisticates (Someone once told me that all the psychologists and psychiatrists in Manhattan are in Truro during the summer months) to native Cape Codders, fishermen and lobstermen who can trace their family tree back to original settlers. To this day, some natives pride themselves on having never set foot off-Cape. When I worked in Provincetown as a college student, I once sheepishly admitted to the chief of police that I wandered all over town alone at all hours of the night. “Darling,” he said, “you are as safe anywhere in town as you would be in your own bed." 

Two years ago, a bear wandered onto the Cape, all the way to Provincetown. Somewhere else (such as Texas, sigh), the first you might hear of this would be some idiot proudly crowing that he shot himself a bear. But on the Cape, people worried that the bear shouldn’t be darted and moved because he had as much right to be on the Cape as anyone else. Wildlife officials had to keep his new whereabouts secret so people wouldn’t try to visit him. So, OK, that’s foolish. (It’s all fun and games until the bear kills and eats your dog.) But it is sweet.

So, more than 300 words. But that’s because I really love the Cape.