P is for Pinnacles


It’s a steep haul up the High Peaks Trail, especially when you’re seven months pregnant with your first child. But back then, giddy with promise, my husband Jonathan and I floated past the massive boulders of Pinnacles National Park. Cresting the summit, baby bulk and all, I relished the double take of the buff, shirtless teenagers loitering atop the rocks. They paused mid-swagger to glance in horror at my swollen belly as I conquered the mountain in my smocked maternity top.

Our family has returned to the Pinnacles again and again, drawn by the massive cliffs, soaring spires, and lush spring wildflowers. Leaving behind the fragmented kaleidoscope of daily life, we are calmed by the reliable sameness of the timeless, indifferent peaks.

Yet even in this constant landscape, change is under way. The fantastic rock formations are the remains of an ancient volcano ravaged by erosion, creeping steadily up the Salinas Valley along the San Andreas Fault. I am grateful that only subtle clues dispel the illusion of permanence. A precariously balanced boulder has fallen from its perch. Spatters of chartreuse and rust lichen toil as alchemists, turning rock to soil. Their magic allows monkey flowers the color of apricots to bloom from dirt pockets hidden in solid stone.

Time has worked its alchemist’s magic on us as well. Two years after our initial trip, we camp at the Pinnacles, weighed down by the accoutrements of toddlerhood — diapers, goldfish crackers, juice boxes, a travel crib. Emma, whose in utero view had been obscured, now enjoys the scenery from the baby backpack that digs into our shoulders as we trudge along the dusty trail.

When we return again, the campground has been paved over for more parking. This time, we have two young daughters in tow, barely out of diapers. But Emma and Ally are definitely into sit-down strikes at the prospect of hiking more than a few hundred yards. Not wishing to fight an uphill battle, we content ourselves with the flat path at the base of the mountains so the girls can splash in the creek. Jonathan, impatient with the meandering pace of childhood, sprints to the summit while the girls and I delight in wild bouquets and rocky forts along the valley floor.

The next time the Pinnacles beckon, Emma and Ally gamely traverse the High Peaks Trail. They are enchanted by poppies sprouting out of boulders, the rock that looks like a camel. The girls nibble on miner’s lettuce and strategic bribes of chocolate, scampering around the summit while their tired parents lag behind. Rocks and children tame each other: whininess turns to exultation, forbidding stone becomes an infinite playground.

Although the incline invites vertigo, the girls clamber up and down, up and down the footholds chiseled into the rock, swinging from the metal banister as if nature and the Park Service had fashioned monkey bars just for them. Jonathan and I must squeeze through the narrow cliff passage in an awkward crouch. But it is just the right size for Emma and Ally, who march through boldly upright, giggling as their crooked parents bump their heads against the rocky overhang.

We are not the only ones who find the Pinnacles a good place for families. Condors, recently reintroduced to the park, build nests in the sheltered crevices. While they teach their young how to catch thermals, we show ours how to catch the shine of buttercups on their chins in the warm sunlight.

Now our daughters have taken flight too, soaring and wavering in their own grown-up landscapes. Alone again, Jonathan and I make our pilgrimage to drink in the riotous wildflowers and steadfast rocks whenever time allows. As always, we stop in Soledad at Pacheco’s Mexican Grocery for tortas — soft white rolls dripping with spicy carnitas.

Soledad, gateway to the Pinnacles, has sprung up even faster than Emma and Ally. Twenty-seven years ago, it consisted of Pacheco’s, a prison, a few dusty streets of dilapidated houses, and a fleabag hotel with a cracked, empty swimming pool. Now the highway billboard reads: “It’s happening in Soledad.”  Vineyards dot the hillsides, and a tony resort lies adjacent to the Pinnacles. Kids from tidy homes with manicured yards swarm the soccer field at the spanking new school. A vast shopping center dwarfs the original Main Street, but we still head to our old Mexican grocery. Pacheco’s, whose tortas remain a juicy, scrumptious bargain, is as timeless as the Pinnacles.

Fueled by the succulent tortas and memories, Jonathan and I start up the High Peaks Trail once more. Although stiffer and a little creaky, we ascend quickly past the boulders and apricot blooms of monkey flower.

Again and again, we come back to ourselves in the shelter of the enduring cliffs.


What is your favorite family place that you return to over and over?

O is for Obamacare

iheartobamacare_400pxFirst off, let me just say that I believe single payer is the way to go. No system is perfect, but single payer delivers quality healthcare more equitably, efficiently, and cost-effectively.

That said, I’m a huge fan of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Yes, its origins lie in conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, which promote market-based policies that privilege the profit motive. Obamacare does not go nearly far enough for many, including me.

Yet it’s what could get through a political system that is sclerotic, controlled by monied interests, and held hostage by a Republican Party practically unhinged in its hatred of President Obama.

It’s a profound success that more than 16 million Americans now have health insurance they couldn’t before afford or couldn’t get due to preexisting conditions. Obamacare is also slowing skyrocketing healthcare costs.

My family has been among Obamacare’s many beneficiaries:

For one thing, our kids have been covered under my husband’s employer-provided insurance until they turn 26. Since Emma aged out last year, she’s been fortunate to get healthcare she could not have otherwise afforded. Pieced-together, low-wage employment is common for young people now: Emma survives as an artist on part-time Russian translation work while also working in a restaurant.  Initially, Emma benefited from Medicaid expansion (again, she’s lucky to live in a state that opted into this provision of the law). Now that she’s a bit more stable economically, subsidies help her afford excellent health care through our state’s health exchange. When our younger daughter, Ally, moves back this summer from Spain (where she’s enjoyed the benefits of national health care) she, too, will be able to find affordable health insurance.

Of course, since Ally’s only 24, she could also still be covered under my husband’s plan. Except that he’s retiring in May! This, too, is something he never could have done before Obamacare. We’ve both had cancer, which involves ongoing monitoring. I am self-employed, and there is no way we could have gotten individual insurance because of our pre-existing conditions—a heinous denial of coverage that Obamacare outlaws.  Now my husband can pursue other interests free from the burden of remaining tethered to a job simply because we need health insurance we otherwise couldn’t get. And somebody else who needs and wants a job can have the position my husband will soon vacate.

Sure, we’ll pay a lot for coverage on our own. We’re too well off to qualify for subsidies, which is as it should be–they are designed to help those less fortunate. Of course, we’ll still benefit from annual out-of-pocket caps, free preventive services, and the knowledge that we and tens of millions of other Americans will no longer have to worry about the Russian roulette that used to be national policy.

Don’t get me wrong—I know that Obamacare is far from a panacea, and that for those who are healthy and whose incomes are a little but not a lot above the subsidized level, health insurance is far from affordable. For some it’s become more expensive. And because our system has engendered such a complicated law, tax season has become even more migraine-inducing than usual.

Yet we should be careful not to blame Obamacare for what had been happening for years anyway—premiums skyrocketing, people getting dropped, families going bankrupt due to lifetime caps, employers reducing hours to avoid providing benefits, or simply no longer offering health insurance at all.

It is a reform in process, but its benefits far outweigh whatever drawbacks exist.

What saddens and outrages me the most, though, is how much energy has been put into destroying rather than improving Obamacare. And I’m not even talking about the lies (remember death panels?) designed to thwart it from the get-go. The Supreme Court allowed states to opt out of Medicaid expansion, leaving millions of poor Americans who live in 23 (mostly Republican-controlled) states uncovered yet unable to afford healthcare on the exchanges.

Now even the federally managed exchanges (set up because so many of these same states refused to take responsibility for their own residents, and passed the buck to the Feds they deplore) are at risk as the Supreme Court considers King v. Burwell. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the plaintiffs in a case that is based on what most see as the political exploitation of a semantic glitch, it will likely prove Obamacare’s unraveling. Which is exactly what its scorched-earth opponents want.

What do I want? It’s simple, really. I want a law that has helped tens of millions of Americans already, and which promises to benefit many more in the future. I’m grateful to President Obama for achieving what no other president had been able to accomplish.

Please—hands off our Obamacare!

N is for New Nest, Spiffed up with Cleanser (and Love)

cleaning suppliesI am down on my hands and knees in my pajamas, scrubbing my daughter Emma’s bathroom floor. The one-inch hexagonal tiles were clearly not installed with college kids in mind, to say nothing of the Deco light fixtures and grooved wainscoting. Every nook and cranny is caked with grime.

Emma is asleep upstairs in the bed abandoned by the previous tenant. She’s exhausted from yesterday’s 12-hour drive and the thought of setting up her first home outside the dorms. But I’ve been up since daybreak.

It’s been years since I’ve cleaned my own bathroom. I replenish the empty bottles of Soft Scrub and Windex that Maria leaves on the counter. That’s the extent of my exertion. How do I instruct my daughter in the lost domestic arts?

“Make enough money so you can hire a housecleaner” is my usual advice. But Emma at 20 is years away from a good paycheck.  What was I thinking when I let Maria scrub the toilet?

Emma may have grown up with Maria, but I grew up without hired help, under the tutelage of a mother who swore by Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Housekeep. When I was just a few years older than Emma, I shared an apartment with my friend Jane, whose mother’s domestic Bible was more Lutheran than Peg Bracken. Their credo was “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”  Jane once surveyed the bathroom I had just scoured and asked in a despairing tone, “Didn’t your mother ever teach you about cleanser?”

My mother did teach me about cleanser, but she imparted a different lesson. She associated housework with the humiliation her own mother endured scrubbing floors for a sadistic boss during the Depression. My grandmother humbled herself for a pittance so her daughter would not starve. Maria, albeit with a kinder employer and higher wages, does the same. I am lucky to escape their desperate need. But here I am, another mother engaged in the sacrament of love through sacrifice, down on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor for my daughter.

By now my back is aching, so I pause to stretch. Chrome faucets, mirror, and light fixtures gleam. Stripped of encrusted layers of filth, the wainscoting and baseboards are blindingly white. I survey my efforts with pride, grateful that years of paid help have not stripped away my ability to clean, limited though it may be. For the grueling labor that is basic to love cannot be hired out.

Emma is awake at last. She comes downstairs, yawning and stretching as she stumbles into the bathroom. Her delight is a balm for my sore knees and stiff back.
After breakfast, we search out provisions in Emma’s new neighborhood, emerging from the hardware store with a Swiffer Sweeper Starter Kit and several other weapons in the war against grime.

Back at the house, Emma and I tackle the kitchen together. We work side by side, scrubbing the Formica counters, polishing the cabinet fronts. I remember a moment years ago, when baby Emma kept me company in the kitchen, her luscious neck folds spilling out of the collar of her cotton jammies. As I sat on the floor polishing with the cleaning rag, I glanced to my side. There she was right next to me, vigorously wiping circles on the cabinets with her blankie. Baby Emma grinned with delight as we swooped, cackling, into one another’s arms.

Now Emma spritzes Windex on congealed spills atop a glass table in the living room. We ooh and ahh over the house’s multiple charms—the elegant bathroom, soft pine flooring, built-in window seats. Emma and I scheme about getting rid of all her housemates’ junk. I think, If only we could get rid of them, I could move in here with you, and we could really fix it up nicely! But I keep this sentiment to myself.

The next morning I must head for home. Emma is content to stay behind, running her Swiffer under the sofas and across the honey-colored floors.

I go into the gleaming bathroom one last time. Pausing in my morning ablutions to admire my handiwork, I see that I have missed some spots. The window is streaked, and stray cobwebs dangle from the upper molding like Spanish moss. But overall, the bathroom cleans up nicely. It has good bones.

I’ve missed a few spots with my daughter as well: how to budget, how to scrub a toilet, the uses of cleanser.  But Emma, too, cleans up nicely. She has good bones.

My aching bones remind me again of my gratitude for Maria. I’d still advise Emma to earn enough money to hire a housecleaner. But I would impart some additional wisdom as well: Learn how to clean, so that someday, if you are lucky enough to be moving your daughter into her first house, you can know the sheer joy of scrubbing her bathroom floor on hands and knees while she sleeps.


What was it like moving into your first home away from home? If you have children, what’s it been like helping them set up in their newly fledged adult lives?

M is for Movie Group

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYears ago, when our daughters were in kindergarten and third grade, my husband and I started a book group with other families we knew through our kids’ school. Five couples and 11 kids met for a potluck dinner every few weeks. The third-graders discussed The Babysitters Club (this was before Harry Potter was invented); the younger children pitched fits. Total chaos. Plus, I noticed over time that a mixed-gender group tends to choose a lot of books about war and history.

Still, we had a lot of fun for many years, and even read a few good books along the way.

Once our Babysitters Book Club kids had all gone off to college, my husband and I decided it was time to start a new group. By this time we had wised up, and knew our limits. No kids, of course—we only invited empty-nesters (different friends from our old crew, since I still harbored resentment about some of those literary choices). No full-scale dinner parties—just dessert.

And, best of all, no books–just movies! An assigned book you don’t like is a torturous investment. An assigned movie you don’t like, on the other hand, is a serendipitous nap!

Our movie group kicked off in 2008 with Elegy. I don’t remember a thing about the film, except we all agreed that anything with Penelope Cruz in it is worth seeing for the visuals alone. (I personally have a crush on Jesse Eisenberg, making me the lone member who didn’t think his Mark Zuckerberg was an asshole in The Social Network.)

Elegy was the one and only movie we all saw together, sitting in our stretched-out row in the theater. After that, people have seen the movies on their own, according to what works best for their schedule, including whether they can only stay awake if it’s a matinee (not naming any names here!).

The challenge is picking a movie that will still be around close to the time of our next group: If we see it too early, we won’t remember it. After all, we’re all old enough to be empty-nesters—which means we don’t recall anything that’s happened more than a few days ago. (If we see a movie in our independent art theater, my husband and I won’t remember it at all, because we will have slept through it—even the matinee.)

I adore our movie group, which rotates among our houses every few weeks. The hosts provide dessert and pick the movie, usually with consensus reached via email beforehand. But if I wanted to pick some obscure Jesse Eisenberg film, it would be my prerogative to cram it down everyone’s throat. Every host but me always makes food to match the film’s theme—a nice touch that I always forget. Except when we saw The Help, but I just couldn’t bring myself to serve chocolate pie.

Other than Boyhood, which we all loved, and Unmistaken Child, which we all hated, we never agree. Part of the fun is predicting who will have what opinion.

One thing’s clear, though: the right people are married to one another–movie tastes are similar between the members of each couple. This vindicates my husband and me, because years ago, we developed a theory that couples’ compatibility could be predicted based on the 10 favorite and 10 least favorite movies of each (those dogs in the middle, i.e., the bad films my husband likes, don’t count so as not to skew the results). My husband and I had to put our theory aside to save our own marriage after a dispute about a very fine film, The Piano. But now our data set of four couples proves its validity once more.

So, if there are any algorithm geniuses from Netflix and Match.com out there who want to cut us a percentage of the killing they will make from our theory, give us a call.

Or better yet, catch us at the movies!


Are you in a movie group? What’s your favorite movie? Would your relationship withstand the test of our Movie Compatibility Theory? If not, would you ditch the theory, the movie, or the relationship?

L is for Listen to Your Mother

LTYM badge-2015Listen to your mother:  Good advice, unless your mother is the toxic sort, in which case you should ignore what she says.

But no matter what kind of mother you have—or are, or even know–Mother’s Day is coming! And so is Listen to Your Mother, a national live performance event coming to a place near you (if you happen to live near one of this year’s 39 venues) in the run up to Mother’s Day

LTYM is the brainchild of writer and founder Ann Imig. Its tagline is “Giving motherhood a microphone,” and it does just that to local writers sharing their stories of motherhood from the heartbreaking to the hilarious. Some of the writers have been published before; some labor in obscurity; some have never put pen to paper before they submit to LTYM.

There’s no better topic than motherhood to spawn perpetually fascinating stories and a perpetually fascinated audience. When LTYM first debuted in 2010 before a live audience in Madison, Wisconsin,  almost 300 people laughed and cried as a dozen women shared stories about every aspect of motherhood.

Since then LTYM has mushroomed—not just to this year’s 39 live performances (all produced by volunteer producers with the help of local sponsors),  but to thousands of videos, and now even a book collecting some of the best stories from LTYM shows. A portion of the proceeds from each show is donated to a local charity supporting families.

I first found out about LTYM in 2012, when someone in my writing group put out the word that LTYM San Francisco was holding auditions. Late to the party as usual, I submitted a short humorous piece at the 11th hour, auditioned via Skype, and was selected! (You can watch me sharing one of the guilty secrets of motherhood live at LTYM SF 2012.)

It was incredibly fun meeting my fellow cast members—we were 11 women and one man in all—at our two rehearsals and of course for the event itself, in San Francisco’s historic Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater. Our producers, Kim and Kirsten, who met at BlogHer, epitomized kindness and grace while never seeming to break a sweat as they pulled a million details together. (Of course—they’re mothers.) Our stories ranged from the poignancy of having no mother to listen to after she dies to the comedy of persuading young children that yes, their gay grandmothers can get married even though they never wear dresses. (It turns out that as long as there’s cake, it’s a wedding.)

Now, several dynamite women of the Write On Mamas, to which I belong, are producing this year’s LTYM SF, May 9 at the Brava Theater Center in San Francisco’s Mission District. It promises to be a wonderful show. You might even want to bring your mother.

I just bought my ticket, and you can buy yours by clicking here if you’re in the SF Bay Area, here if you live elsewhere, and here if you want to buy the book–far more meaningful than flowers or chocolate for a Mother’s Day gift.


Do you listen to your mother? What’s the best and worst advice she ever gave you?



K is for Kitchen Table

tableMy youngest daughter, Ally, who had our old kitchen table at college, wanted to sell it before studying abroad for a year. I, however, insisted on storing the table during her absence, certain she would need it upon her return.

But it was really my need: for Ally to still want to keep a part of home, and for her to remain with us, “in storage,” during the temporary absence that foreshadowed the permanent separation of growing up. Although the table would be cumbersome to move and store, I wasn’t ready to let go.

After all, it was so much more than a table. I remembered how my future husband set it with yellow roses and homemade spaghetti soon after we met, and the subsequent family dinners once we had kids. I recalled the homework, the crafts, the cookie decorating, how the table contained the overflow of books, mail, and all the stuff of family life throughout the years. I had held on to the table to forestall feeling the loss of these cherished times, the ache of the empty nest.

Transitional objects are not just the loved-to-bits blankies and stuffed animals of childhood; they help us cope throughout life. We hang on to them until we do the work of integrating and grieving what they signify, and can relinquish them once they become just the thing itelf.

So after remembering, and mourning, I called Ally and said, “Sell the table.” It had become just a piece of furniture to me, and a ratty one at that. I could bear its loss, and even look forward to what might open up in letting go.

In the end Ally decided to keep the table. Perhaps she still needed a token of home while growing up. Or just a place to eat dinner and throw her books.


What have you hung on to, and what has helped you relinquish it?

J is for JOMO

Who-cares-about-Football“I’m over my FOMO,” my daughter Ally remarked.

“FOMO?” I asked blankly. “What’s that?”

“You know—Fear of Missing Out. I thought I needed to move back to San Francisco as soon as possible so I could be part of the scene there. But my friends tell me it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”

Ally was poised to spend another year in Spain, this time in Barcelona. Even those creating the scene she didn’t want to miss might envy Ally’s soon-to-be life in the World Capital of Where It’s Happening. So I didn’t quite get it.

Which is no surprise, really: My standard m.o. is missing out on everything.

“I live under a rock,” I frequently say by way of explanation when my friends share a juicy tidbit about a celebrity I’ve never heard of, or talk about TV shows, technology, the latest books, or how the Giants are doing.

“Giants are baseball, 49ers are football, right?” I contribute to the discussion.

Trouble is, I feel bad about inhabiting the limbo between wanting to be in the know but being too lazy or overwhelmed to get there. Not following the news as I once did may preserve my sanity, but I view it as a failure of citizenship. I know about some great TV series, but am always seasons behind on Homeland, The Good Wife, Justified. (Breaking Bad, The Wire, and Mad Men I’ve missed out on altogether.) And don’t get me started on how bad I feel about my technophobia!

But death as an exit strategy from the dismal feeling of falling farther and farther behind isn’t a very appealing option either.

I wish I could be more like people who have JOMO: Joy of Missing Out.

Like my mother-in-law, who, when I try to explain Facebook, asks in disbelief, “Why would anyone want to do that? Why not pick up the phone?”

Or my daughter Emma, who is mystified by her sister’s failure to see the ruination wrought by “progress,” and who proudly hangs on to her flip-phone.

Or my friend Sally, who has a horror of answering any phone, and doesn’t fret about her social media savvy or lack thereof. (Sally also believes that dog boutiques catering to people who buy jeweled collars signify the demise of civilization.)

These wise ones could all care less about keeping up with anything or anyone.

How I envy their JOMO!


Do you tend more toward FOMO or JOMO?


I is for Inheritance

Maggie was my trainer when I volunteered for a crisis hotline in 1977. Although she was 30 years older than I, we became close friends and colleagues. Maggie and her husband, Peter, came to my wedding. Whenever Maggie and I went out to lunch, I’d say hello to Peter. But I didn’t know him at all outside of these brief encounters and Maggie’s stories about their life together, first in war-torn England, then fleeing the Soviets in Prague, then in America.

When Maggie was stricken with Alzheimer’s, my interactions with Peter became a little like the change in shift between the live-in caretaker and the respite help. “How is she doing today? Will she be able to order off a menu? Does she still know who I am? Have there been any repeats of the time she tried to get out of a moving car? How are you doing?”

“Oh, fine, thanks,” Peter would reply, always the stoic and dignified immigrant. Occasionally I would hear frustration in Peter’s voice as he persuaded Maggie to put on her socks. Or maybe he just spoke louder because Maggie was losing her hearing as well as her mind.

Whenever I would return from my brief outings with Maggie, Peter would say, “She always seems in better spirits after she sees you. Thank you.”

Maggie died seven years ago today, but I have kept up my visits. Every few weeks, Peter welcomes me into the home he and Maggie shared. He is as heartbroken today as he was when she died.

“I’m ready to die, too,” my new 94-year-old friend tells me. “But Maggie wouldn’t want me to be the kind of person who stops getting dressed, stops washing, sits around doing nothing all day. So in the meantime, I’m keeping busy.”

And in the meantime, we talk—about his life in Prague as a multilingual intellectual and journalist before the Nazis came, about his service in the British Royal Air Force, where he met Maggie when stationed in her home town. We talk about Maggie, about politics, about his children and grandchildren, about my work and family.

What a priceless inheritance Maggie has left me.


What unexpected treasures have you inherited?

H is for Hero Worship

little engine that could

The Little Engine That Could is a favorite children’s story that teaches the value of determination, hard work, and an optimistic attitude. Fueled by the mantra, “I think I can, I think I can,” the tiny train surmounts incredible obstacles. Cue the ecstatic acclaim.

I’ve  thought about this quintessentially American fable ever since James Robertson came to national attention earlier this year. When his car died 10 years ago, Robertson, a 56-year-old Detroit resident, walked 21 miles a day to and from work for a decade. There was no reliable public transportation, and Robertson could not afford a new car on his factory wage of $10.55 an hour. So he kept on going through all kinds of weather and unsafe areas, never missing a day of work, and never complaining.

Robertson’s been lauded as an American hero. As one letter writer in my local paper enthused,

Mr. Robertson is what America is supposed to be all about; he reflects the values that made this country great. . . . America loves those who are willing to work hard and fend for themselves . . .

We sure do. We’re a can-do country, born and bred on The Little Engine that Could. People so loved Mr. Robertson’s story that through crowd-funding, they raised enough to give him $360,000 in cash and a new car.

Those who overcome adversity certainly deserve our admiration. But there is a dark side to our adulation of such against-all-odds triumphs. Just look at what else the aforementioned letter writer has to say (I repeat his admiration of Mr. Robertson as a springboard to his further point):

America loves those who are willing to work hard and fend for themselves rather than trying to game the system and depend on government assistance when it is not really needed.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were more people like James Robertson willing to do what it takes to get and keep a job and be productive members of our society, and fewer individuals who are able to work but choose to take advantage of the government’s willingness to give away our tax dollars?

I have no quarrel with Mr. Robertson, but there’s plenty wrong with a society that idealizes high levels of adversity as an acceptable test of character. Should it take 21 miles of walking through all kinds of weather to keep a job? If this is the expectation, then we don’t have to look at a system of wages in which a full-time worker can’t afford a new car. We can ignore the lack of public transportation, childcare, decent wages. It’s an implicit acceptance that society owes nothing to the individual.

Such thinking lets us off the hook. It allows us to believe that those who cannot make it are to blame. The letter writer may have been inartful in his words, but his sentiment is not unique—in fact, it’s what fuels our most monumental political debates and is arguably a fair summary of the Republican Party’s platform.

It also substitutes favored-cause crowd-funding for sensible and humane public policy.

This swap, not surprisingly, doesn’t turn out so well—not only for those whose inspring stories are not trumpeted in the national media, but even for Mr. Robertson: His ex-girlfriend went after his money, and he had to move out of his neighborhood because he felt threatened by those have-nots who remained .

Sure, there would still be jerks even in a more equitable society that embraced collective good and not just individual triumph. But I can’t help but wonder how things might be if more people could be deemed worthy of support without having to be stand-alone (or walk-alone) heroes.

Because, after all: What if the Little Engine can’t?

G is for Gratitude


This gratitude craze bugs the shit out of me.

Yeah, yeah, I’ve read the research, too. I know that counting your blessings lowers your blood pressure and elevates your mood. Plus, unless you’re so insufferable that you’ve driven everyone away, a grateful attitude usually means having lots of loved ones who can actually stand to be around you.

The fact that it works infuriates me even more.

Apparently, I’m not alone.

 “’Dear Amy,’” writes Needs a Hug. “. . . I realize that in the grand scheme of things, I have a very good life. Still, . . . I get a little blue. . . Many people seem to feel . . . I will perk up if reminded how much better off I am than others. . . . I feel as if I have no right to feel tired, sad or overtaxed. If I hear one more, ‘Well, at least’ statement, I could fall apart.’”

Tell it like it is, Needs a Hug. Maybe your happy-talk friends just need a knuckle sandwich.

Speaking of sandwiches, remember Café Gratitude, that venerable landmark in the corporatization of self-esteem?  In its heyday you could indulge in “I Am Cheerful” veggie burgers or “I am Fabulous” lasagna, washed down with an “I Am Eternally Blessed” milkshake.

Forgive me, but I am nauseated, and it’s not because of an overabundance of goddess-kissed food.

Call me old-fashioned, but I am suspicious of any feeling that has a menu item named after it. Perhaps I’m being unfair, though. After all, Café Gratitude is merely the logical outcome as the Positive Food and Positive Psychology movements join forces. Merging “You Are What You Eat” with “You Are What You Think” perfectly embodies the trend toward self-esteem as commodity.

This instills in me not so much a feeling of gratitude as the desire to launch a competitive franchise. Maybe I’ll call it Café Curmudgeon. How delicious to imagine the chains battling it out on rival street corners, like Starbucks and Peet’s!

Now don’t get me wrong. Through nature and nurture, I am a cheerful and optimistic person. But just as Heaven is flat and boring compared to the juicy degradations of Hell, life without cynicism and darkness is depressing. What would Peanuts be without Lucy, serene in her crabbiness? Besides, maybe she wouldn’t be so cranky if her sanctimonious little brother, Linus, would just stop radiating goodness all the time. Can’t he give it a rest?

Where would the world be without the temperamentally morose? The evolutionary advantages of depression are clear: after all the more outgoing people have killed one another off, those emerging sluggishly from the cave to take a piss can repopulate the planet.

But once outside the cave, do we really want to live in a lobotomized world? The Stepford Wives depicts a society of happy, grateful people. There’s just a slight catch–harmony is achieved by killing off real women and replacing them with zombies. This seems a bit much, even for the suburbs.

Gratitude, positive thinking, relentless cheerfulness—maybe it’s all part of the same Stepford conspiracy to sanitize authentic emotion. As my friend Avvy says about our horror of dark feelings, “Wash out all aggression. Rinse and repeat.” But woe to those who are not so fastidious about their laundry.

At a Brownie meeting when my daughter was five, I took exception to the part of the oath that demands “A Girl Scout is always cheerful.”  Heedless of my daughter’s social standing, I told the other moms that, in my experience as a therapist, many of my clients’ problems stemmed from exhortations to be cheerful no matter what. There was dead silence for a few beats before one of the mothers said, “Maybe Girl Scouts isn’t for you.”

My therapy clients, too, have been banished by families who do not welcome their lack of good cheer in response to difficult childhoods. They hear, “You’re so sensitive. It’s water under the bridge. Can’t you just let it go?” Well, no, actually. My clients fear that letting go lets derelict people off the hook. It’s not that they want to feel angry and unhappy, but premature gratitude is like a thin coat of whitewash that seals in the toxins.

My clients have read the research, too, though. We know the hazards of lingering in the muck. Shouldn’t we at least try to put on a happy face? Fake it ‘til we make it? If only it were that easy. Now my clients not only feel miserable, but also guilty for making themselves sick, trapped by their inability to choose gratitude.

Yet there’s hope for ingrates and curmudgeons alike, if the annals of restaurateuring are any indication. Café Gratitude’s vast empire has shrunk dramatically ever since disgruntled employees sued them for questionable labor practices. In a letter announcing the closure of most of their restaurants, the owners explained:

 A series of aggressive lawsuits has brought us to this unfortunate choice. . . . We were happy to . . .  sustain ourselves on the transformation and personal growth of our people, while providing local organic vegan food to our community in an atmosphere of unconditional love. That commitment is under attack and we are not able to weather this storm.


Now that’s delicious!