The Danger of Judging a Book by Its Cover

Back in the ’70s, I was walking down a Boston street on a sunny fall day, feeling great. I had the whole day to shop, people-watch, go out to lunch, and anything else I wanted to do. I came to a crosswalk and joined the waiting crowd.

I found myself standing beside a tall and powerful-looking African-American guy, dressed from head to foot in black leather. To say he looked menacing was an understatement–he looked like trouble ready to erupt. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something orange-y poking out of his turned-up collar, so I looked straight at him. Cuddled up in the corner of his neck and protected by his collar was a tiny orange kitten with a white chest and paws.

Before I could stop myself, I said, “awwwwwwwww–what a cute kitty!”

The man looked down at me and broke into a dazzling smile. He gently rubbed the kitten’s head and said, “Her name’s Ginger–ain’t she sweet?”

I told him about my own cat, and said that Ginger was indeed a sweet darling. While we stood there, he told me about how he had rescued her recently and how happy she seemed to have a good home. Animated, he told me all about the fluffy cat bed, litter box, special food and toys he’d gotten her and how much fun it was to have her greet him when he got home. We were so engrossed in cat conversation that people crossed the street several times while we stood there chatting.

Seriously, the man looked like he could bend steel girders with his pinkies, and there he was, gushing on about his new furry roommate. It was absolutely adorable and it made my day. Not only that, but it made me realize that you really cannot judge anyone by their appearance or demeanor. You just don’t know what is going on in a person’s mind, or what challenges they may be facing, or, in this case, what joys a person has to share.

Who knew?

Who is in Your Tribe?

Remember high school? I don’t know about you, but in high school I never quite fit in anywhere. I wasn’t smart enough to belong with the brainiacs, didn’t like sports so didn’t hang out with the jocks, and was certainly not popular enough to be in with the “in” girls. It wasn’t until our high school introduced theater that I found my “tribe.”

There I found other people loved to sing, act, dance, wear costumes and who absolutely loved musicals. When auditions began for our school’s first musical, “The Guy From Venus,” I discovered that I had a competitive spirit. I studied and practiced and read up on the character I wanted (the lead, of course), and swallowed my fears and acted my fool head off at the first audition. No one was more surprised than me when I landed the part. I was 14 years old, and had finally found my tribe–the wonderful and amazing tribe of theater geeks!

I also found that I loved doing hair and makeup for the plays, too, as well as occasionally helping out with painting sets and scenery. It was a wonderful new world for me, and I loved being with other people who loved theater as much as I did. Best of all I got to know people I never would have met if not for the plays and musicals we put on. For five lovely years I was in each musical, and ended my high school career playing Anna in “The King and I.”

I didn’t realize that Francis Cleveland, long-time director of the famous Barnstormers theater in Tamworth, NH was in the audience during the show’s last performance. My parents and grandparents had come backstage to see me, and he introduced himself to us all. Then he asked me if I planned to become a professional actress.

“Oh, no!” I blurted out. “I love acting, but I want a real life.”

I could have cheerfully fallen through the floor. What a stupid thing to say! But Mr. Cleveland smiled and asked me if I was interested in working at the Barnstormers Theater that summer playing the *ingenue roles.

Would I?!? Long story short, it was one of the best summers of my life. I played the kleptomaniac daughter of a family of thieves in “Kind Lady,” the choir director in “Own Town,” Jane Eyre in “Jane Eyre,” the slutty maid in “Angel Street,” and Gigi in “Gigi.” I was privileged to work with the older, more experienced actors, and they were kind and patient with me. It was an incredibly exciting time in my life.

Every day we rehearsed the play scheduled for the following week, and every night we went on with the show we had rehearsed the week before. So we always had two plays in our heads, which was challenging, but fun. Our little theater, both onstage and backstage, felt magical to me. The stagehands kept an old refrigerator near the entrance way, and they always kept in it a loaf of sliced bread, a jar of mayonnaise, and a tube of liverwurst. There was a shoe box with a slit cut in the top for the price of a sandwich; 25 cents. As I was paying my Equity Actors Guild membership each week, I enjoyed a lot of those 25 cent sandwiches!

Not far up the road was a great swimming hole, and on hot days we went up there to cool off. It was also a wonderful place to practice our lines. As the water roared and rushed over the rocks, we sat on the ones that poked above the water, shouting our lines to each other. We felt so arty and sophisticated, but really we were just kids in our late teens and early twenties, having the time of our lives.

For me, there was no better feeling in the world than standing behind the curtain on opening night, my heart beating triple-time, listening to the rustling sounds and murmurs of an audience who paid to see us perform. When the curtain opened and the lights went on, it was a fairy tale come to life.

This was my tribe and I’ve never outgrown it.

*The ingenue in a theater company is the young and innocent girl who plays all the young and innocent female characters in a season.




Cross-Training–It’s Not Just for Athletes

For decades, Mom and Dad ran two businesses; a photography studio and camp patrol. This last was started by my grandfather,  who checked on summer homes, camps, cabins, etc., in the winter time. His customers, who summered in warmer states during the winter, appreciated knowing that he kept an eye on their summer places for ice damage, break-ins, frozen pipes, etc. When he retired, Dad took over.

Mom managed both businesses, setting up photography appointments, handling the finances, keeping the books straight, and also helped Dad in his photography. When he photographed families, there was usually always a fussy, wiggly kid or distracted pet. Mom, armed with several hand puppets, would capture the wiggly one’s attention and let Dad do what he did best. For years, they were a great team, supporting each other, and keeping both businesses running smoothly. Mom also did the housework and cooking, and Dad took care of the outdoor work; gardens, lawn, and, in the winter; snowplowing. He also maintained their vehicles and did repairs.

Despite Mom’s breast cancer in the late ’80s, and then again in the ’90s, she and Dad still ran both the businesses. Years later, she was diagnosed with lung cancer after they retired from both businesses. But for 25  years, Mom lived successfully with cancer, and, with good medical care, she felt pretty well all the time.

However, they both knew that sooner or later, the medications would stop working, and they made their “game plan.” They cross-trained each other—Mom showed Dad how to manage their finances the way she had done it for decades. She showed him where the vacuum was, all the cleaning products and showed him the general house-cleaning routine. Dad showed Mom who to call for what services; by then they had hired someone to care for the lawn, snow, house repairs and fix-ups, and where the cars were serviced. Mom also gave Dad cooking lessons, and today he is able to make quite a few good dishes.

When it became time for Mom to have Hospice this past September, she and Dad stepped up their cross-training. By the time Mom was bed-ridden, everything was in order, and Dad was in charge. Mom was comfortable and happy in the knowledge that Dad could manage well on his own. All this benefited me as well. I knew where everything was; necessary paperwork, documents, wills, etc.

This all was the result of excellent cross-training. Now that Dad is on his own, he is managing everything beautifully. Mom’s and Dad’s good planning benefits us all, and this is a great life lesson for the Crankee Yankee and me. We plan to follow the same training program so that we too will be prepared for anything–as much as you can  be prepared for anything, that is. I call Mom’s and Dad’s plan “be prepared–not scared!”

So, word to the wise for us all–make your cross-training plan before you need it. And best of all, you don’t need fancy athletic clothes and shoes to do it!


The Great Peeps Wars

Happy day after Christmas! Did anyone get Peeps in their stocking this year? You know the ones–the sticky yellow marshmallow chicks covered in so much sugar that they crunch? Usually they come six to a pack. When I was a kid, I loved them. Now I just see them as a major trip to the dentist.

Anyhow, a few years ago, Mom discovered “Peeps wars.” She found them hilarious, and of course, being Mom, she wanted all her friends to know about them.

First, this is how Peeps wars happen: you buy a package of Peeps, then separate them into pairs. Put each pair on a paper plate; the Peeps should face each other, and have a distance of at least one to one-and-a-half inches between them. Next, you “arm” each Peep with a toothpick. Put them in the microwave for a minute or so. The “war” ends when one Peep successfully stabs the other. At this point, laugh your head off, and either eat them (ick) or toss them.

Mom thought that this was so funny that she wanted her friends to have the opportunity to play “Peeps wars,” too. So she packaged up the Peeps two by two with two toothpicks enclosed in a ziplock bag, and passed them out to her friends. Some of them must have thought she was off her rocker–until they actually staged and completed the Peeps wars.

Fads come and go, but her friends still talk about the time they had warring Peeps in their microwaves. Try it and see for yourself–it’s what the Crankee Yankee and I call “savage amusement.”

May the Force be with you.

A Christmas Carol

My all-time favorite Christmas movie is “A Christmas Carol,” with Scrooge played by the incomparable Alastair Sim. It was filmed in black and white in 1951, and it remains in my opinion the finest version of this classic Dickens tale.

The message I always carry away from it is that redemption is available to us all. It is possible to transcend our weaknesses, fears, worries and doubts; we all have the choice to decide to be our own better angels.

Being positive takes practice, but it can be done. What’s the first thing to come to mind when nothing seems to work out the way you planned? Is it “Oh, NO! Everything always happens to meeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” or is it “Well, this will set things back a little, but I can work with it.”

Being positive is a choice. We really can choose our moods, not let them choose us. After years of being moody, rude and sarcastic (well, I haven’t quite stopped being snarky from time to time), I realized that I was deliberately pushing people away and I certainly didn’t feel any better.

Again I will refer to the amazing *Noreen McDonald and her life-changing classes. In taking her Positive Thinking class, everything changed for me. I found out that I can actually choose to be positive, not always slip into negativity. I am slowly learning to find the lesson in whatever major or minor disaster that has caused me to get my knickers in a twist.

It can be as simple as this: when someone cuts me off in traffic, scaring me into near incontinence, I can choose to be glad that nothing happened. A thoughtless and dangerous action caused by someone whose mind was elsewhere did NOT cause damage to me or my vehicle. I have to concentrate on gratitude. To further clear out any negative emotions on my part, I also say out loud, “That was dumb and dangerous. Don’t do it again.” Then I thank God and all the angels that nothing worse happened.

I also find that deep breathing helps clear my mind and de-stress my body. As I said, it takes practice, but changing our attitudes really does help. When something negative happens, more and more you can go to that place in your mind that says, “Whoa! You don’t need to ruin your day over this. Calm down, be grateful, and go on with your day.”

Nine times out of ten, the person who ticked me off in the first place did not pick me out personally to torment. It is rarely personal. We can’t know what is going on in another person’s head, nor can we know what has happened to that person to distract them. After losing my mother a week ago, I have noticed that I am forgetful, subject to sudden laughter or tears, and that I can’t always keep my thoughts in order. What has happened to me has happened to hundreds of thousands of people; we just never know who is suffering, angry, scared or worried.

This isn’t to say that I have overcome anger and snarkiness forever–far from it. I just have to keep reminding myself that I do have a choice.

Some of my favorite quotes from “A Christmas Carol” are these:

“There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”
“No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.”
“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”
“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, every one!”
Merry Christmas, everyone!

*Check out her classes at

How to Show Kindness to Yourself

I read this in the Kindness Blog by *Vidyamala Burch. The subject of being kind to oneself intrigued me, and I wanted to share part of the post with you. She was teaching a mindfulness class, and a young woman asked her a difficult question.

The question and Vidyamala’s thoughts follow:

“How do I keep turning up with compassion and kindness, when people just throw it back in my face, or don’t appreciate it?

We can all relate to this dilemma and the feelings of anger and despair when our efforts seem so misunderstood! This young woman is trying to make her way through life by giving the best that she can, and what is she getting back in return? Only her own tormenting feelings of bitterness, resentment and confusion.

Buddhism, which the secular mindfulness field has mostly drawn from, works from a different principle. Here we are taught that kindness always needs to start at home.

You can only really be there for others if you have a strong foundation of self-love, self-kindness and confidence to tap into.

It’s obvious when you think about it — if we can’t be kind to ourselves then we can’t be genuinely kind to others — it just isn’t sustainable and will lead to feelings of hurt, bitterness, anger or plain exhaustion.

Kindness to oneself doesn’t mean we become selfish and self-absorbed though. Being aware of and kind to others is at the very heart of Buddhism and mindfulness. Loving kindness to oneself, as it’s known in Buddhism, is more about being realistic and knowing your limits, how much you can give and your boundaries. If you have the rising feeling that you are giving and giving and resentment is building up, take this as a sign that you need to spend time being kind and loving to yourself.

So what is loving kindness to oneself?

I think of it as cultivating the same attitude to yourself as you have towards someone you love – you naturally turn to that loved one with kindness and an open heart. Or perhaps, a cherished pet? Recall the feelings of loving kindness as you spend time with it and stroke it – now turn those feelings back onto yourself. Breathe in and drench each breath with loving kindness for you.

If you do practice these steps of goodwill towards yourself, then magically, in the true spirit of Christmas and giving, you will be able to care and love others much more deeply, in a much more sustainable way.”

*Vidyamala is one of the world’s leading experts on mindfulness for health, and founder and Director of Breathworks, a leading UK-based not-for-profit organisation, specialising in Mindfulness-Based Pain and Illness Management. Breathworks have recently run pilot programmes around the country, working with numerous charities, the National Probation Service, Department of Health and NHS. Breathworks also provides face-to-face and online courses for individuals living with pain, illness and stress.