Category Archives: Life

If it’s not about classical music, ballet or the violin, you’ll find it here.

Nordstrom, Jo Malone & gifting kindness

The funny thing is that by the time I called Nordstrom lost & found, I’d made peace with the fact that someone else had requisitioned my $142.00 purchase of Jo Malone perfume. I’d visualized them spraying it on, sighing in satisfaction at the delicate English Pear and Freesia, or the zesty, invigorating Grapefruit, or the brand-new-to-me Nutmeg and Ginger cologne. When the customer service person in Lost and Found asked me to describe the product I’d lost, four days earlier, I hardly felt like going there anymore.

But let’s back up. Here‘s the story as I relayed it on Facebook the day before my last-ditch-effort phone call.

The stoned sense of exhaustion you feel after the sixth day of a road trip, 900 miles covered, friends, family, and one particularly unwell, beloved sister visited. The pleasure you get at spying a big mall when you have an hour to spare and want to do something special for yourself, because the next day, you have to do that 900 mile drive in reverse. The delight at seeing a Jo Malone counter at Nordstrom, because you’ve adored the sample of grapefruit cologne you just ran out of, and having a favorite cologne handy on a long drive at the end of a tiring trip is just perfect.

Adorably nice clerk named Christina + sampling a few new scents you’d never tried before = two bottles of perfume purchased to the tune of $142, which garnered you a complimentary Jo Malone gift bag (including a trio of three more scents – score!). Happy dance all the way out of the door.

The challenge of too much shopping mall stimulus 30 mn later and the relief of returning to a quiet car. The horror of realizing that the hand clutching the Jo Malone bag is empty. Racking fogged brain produces no clues. Retracing steps for the next 30 minutes to no avail. Bag is gone. Stupid, fogged, tired me, now minus my new treasure.

The child’s tears that arise when I return to the Jo Malone counter empty-handed, and see the puzzled, concerned look on Christina’s smiling face, which turns into pure compassion when I explain in a wobbly voice. I tell her I’m ready to just buy another bottle, to take the edge off a 900 mile fume and self-castigation punishment the next day.

“No, no,” she said. “We don’t want you spending more money today. Let me assemble you something.  That way you’ll have something to hold you over until you get your original bag back.”

“It might not happen,” I sniffed, the tears still, annoyingly, a steady leak. “It probably won’t.”

“There are good people out there,” she said.

“There’s both kinds,” I said, all pessimist and defeat.

Christina gave me a reassuring smile. “I have a good feeling about this,” she said, and set off to do what she could do for me right then.

The deep, deep appreciation for people in the world like her, who manage to find a silver lining for your cloud. She gave me another beribboned Jo Malone bag, with a second complimentary gift (free with a purchase over $130, so she told me “easy to give you another one!”) and two generous, oversized sample bottles of what I’d bought and lost.

In the end, back home, the reverse 900 miles traveled, and more accepting about my loss, calmness, amid a wry understanding that life is like this. Sometimes you lose and it just hurts. A bottle of perfume, a marriage, a house, a car, a life — you go through pain regardless of the loss’s size. When you’re tired and vulnerable, a small loss can feel huge. But, in return, life gifts you with surprises. Maybe the someone who’d found my unattended Jo Malone bag really, really needed it. They picked it up, took it home, and likely stared, agog at this unexpected bounty. Because that’s the flip side. My mistake had gifted someone $142 of lovely perfume, just as Christina, my lovely Nordstrom clerk, had gifted me with something I very much needed at that particular moment.

Kindness. Compassion. Price: immesurable.

And now you know what followed this aha, dear reader, that I myself didn’t while penning the above. That phone call to Nordstrom lost and found, a Hail Mary pass and catch combined.

I had indeed left the bag right there in Nordstrom (when?! where?!) and someone had turned it in. I waited, disbelieving, for the punch line, the “just kidding!” or “whoops, my mistake, wrong item, not yours!” from the customer service person speaking to me. None came. Instead, a cheery request for my mailing address, and would two-day shipping be okay? Free of charge, of course. A Nordstrom policy.

Nordstrom is a unique company, still family-run and owned since John W Nordstrom opened  his first shop, a shoe store, in 1901. This year marks the 20th year in a row Nordstrom has made the Fortune 100 “Best Companies to Work For” list —  just one of 12 firms to do so, and the only one in the fashion apparel segment. I’m not surprised; I’ve always noticed their quality customer service and you can almost feel it in the air, the culture of empowerment that they encourage among their employees. When I spoke with Christina over the phone, the day after my box arrived, sharing the good news, telling her what a difference her actions made that day, she agreed that Nordstrom is a great company. She shared that their new store manager told all the employees that one of his top goals was to keep employee turnover down. Think of it. What an affirming philosophy. What a nurturing work environment. I remember Christina’s comments the day of my loss, her “Oh, we don’t want you buying anything more today. Let me, instead, give you a gift.”

Is that the coolest thing or what?

I told Christina that her kindness to me that day had been one of the most unforgettable gifts I’d received. Even superseding the return of the perfume and gift bag, back to me via mail. Her sympathy and compassion in my time of tearful vulnerability had been everything.

“Oh, you just made my day,” she said, and my own heart swelled, all over again.

What a wonderful gift, kindness. It’s something we can give away free, to boot. It doesn’t require planning or analysis or foresight. It’s just doing the right thing at the right time for the right person.

Thank you, Christina. Thank you, Nordstrom. Thank you, Jo Malone. I’ll remember this gift for some time to come.

To the heroes of the graduating class

If the strains of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” didn’t cause my throat to constrict during my son’s recent high school graduation ceremony, the sight of 180 teens marching in neat lines of two across, dignified in their black graduation robes and caps sure did.

As far as graduations went, it was your typical, garden-variety affair. Held outdoors on the football field, the beauty of the Santa Cruz Mountains flanking the campus, we listened to the usual opening address, followed by songs, speeches, recognition for award recipients. Hats off to the graduates who garnered awards. You surely deserved it and your efforts have been duly noted and fêted. Valedictorians, Salutatorians, Principal’s Award recipient, National Honor Society member, Top 10 Students. And so on.

That’s not the group, however, to whom I dedicate this blog.

I am a member of NAMI—the National Alliance on Mental Illness—and I participate in a local support group and its accompanying online discussion forum. Other members of this group are parents such as my husband and myself, who have needed support through our kids’ tricky adolescent years. The group, its supportive presence and collective wisdom, has been a life saver to me, a rope flung out in turbulent waters that just about pulled me under a few years ago. I’m unspeakably grateful for the group, its members and their own stories. Difficult situations abound. Life gets real here.

Prior to parenting, in my early thirties, I glibly thought all kids graduated from high school. Well, certainly kids of well-adjusted parents with college degrees and a stable, loving home environment. You do everything right, the kid will turn out right. Right?

I can hear some of you laughing out there. Silly, deluded Classical Girl. Life, as well, sort of chuckled at my naïve attitude and murmured, “Boy, do you have something to learn.” So Life went about teaching me. Illuminating me. The past eight years, if not the past eighteen years, have forever changed me. Humbled me. Opened my eyes to all the different, subtle ways, all of us—kids and parents alike—struggle. And when your kid is not neurotypical, or is struggling with a mental illness or behavioral differences, or something scary and undiagnosable, all the rules of parenting get thrown out the window anyway.

What seemed impossible to consider two and three years ago—my son pushing past his challenges to graduate from high school—took place this month. And, oh, the pride I felt, the relief, the thorny, crazy wisdom. The bittersweetness. Because not all my NAMI friends and fellow parents have been able to achieve this milestone. Good kids from good families sometimes have to drop out of high school. Debilitating anxiety. Physical illness. Mental illness. Scary, turbulent behavior that risks tearing the family apart. Eating disorders. Self-harm. Suicide ideations. Suicide attempts. The escalation of any of the above, mandating residential treatment. Attaining a high school diploma becomes secondary in importance, often shelved, temporarily out of their reach.

On graduation day, I watched closely as all my son’s classmates’ names were called out and they stepped up to receive their diplomas. Each and every one touched me. I understand now that every last one of those kids had a story. Every one of their parents had a reason to feel proud. We may never know the other guy’s story. If it involves something like anxiety or mental illness, quite possibly we won’t ever hear the story. There are no awards for having gotten out of bed every morning and gone to school, even though, for some teens, it was like scaling Mt. Everest daily. Some teens went through periods of wanting to kill themselves. Some tried.  Families tend not to share that. You just never know.

Those are my heroes. Those kids. The quiet-looking ones (or not) who didn’t garner awards and accolades (or maybe they did. Reminder to self: you just never, never know). They did this. They achieved this milestone.

Here’s to you, heroes of the graduating class of 2017, for all your efforts, the barriers you overcame, to arrive at this place. And to your parents. I raise my glass high to you all. And to my son, I am so very, very proud of you.

 

                      

PS: if you are a parent struggling with this kind of situation and don’t know where to turn, please, please reach out to me, via my “contact me” page, or get in touch with your local NAMI chapter. There IS help for you and your child. You are NOT alone. I promise.

It’s Acoustic Neuroma Awareness Week

Acoustic neuromas seem to want to feature into my extended family. If you’re one of my regular readers, you’ve likely heard the story of my sister and her acoustic neuroma, but a different sister found herself with an extra chapter to the story. Two years ago, she and her husband had an appointment with an ENT specialist following up on his own symptoms (headache, ringing in the ear). An MRI had been performed and the doctor now told the two of them, “What he has here is a rare condition, affecting 1 in 100,000, known as an acoustic neuroma. Now, what an acoustic neuroma is…”

“… is a slow-growing, benign tumor, located on the eighth cranial nerve,” my sister finished for him. “Yes,” she added, noting his surprise, “our family knows all about acoustic neuromas. My sister had one removed six years ago.”

So. You add two family members and my beloved character, Dena, from my novel Outside the Limelight to the equation, along with the fact that I’ve pledged to donate 10% of the proceeds for Outside the Limelight to the Acoustic Neuroma Association, and that’s why it seemed important to pause the button on musings about classical music and ballet to give the condition and the association a shout-out this week. Happy Acoustic Neuroma Awareness week to all of you!

What is an acoustic neuroma? Also known as a vestibular schwannoma, it’s a benign tumor that arises on the eighth cranial nerve leading from the brain stem to the inner ear. This nerve has two distinct parts, one part associated with transmitting sound and the other with sending balance information to the brain. The eighth cranial nerve and the facial (and/or seventh) cranial nerve lie adjacent to each other; they pass through a bony canal called the internal auditory canal. It is generally here that acoustic neuromas originate, from the sheath surrounding the eighth nerve. When they grow large, they press against the brain stem, which gets dangerous, as you might have guessed. Acoustic neuroma patients often deal with post-op issues that reflect the state of these compromised nerves: hearing can be compromised or destroyed on the tumor side. Patients can experience different levels of one-sided facial paralysis, as well, based on the condition of the facial nerve, and whether or not it has to be clipped during the extraction surgery.

I lived vicariously in the world of the acoustic neuroma patient for three years while writing and revising my novel, Outside the Limelight. I frequented the Acoustic Neuroma Association’s invaluable discussion board, which is an amazing place, a source of not just information but powerful stories of both struggle and success. Check it out HERE — you will learn so much and have the opportunity to hear the stories of real-life heroes and survivors.

To help celebrate Acoustic Neuroma Awareness Week and increase the opportunity for more people to learn about acoustic neuromas and how they impact a person’s life, Outside the Limelight will be free from Wed, May 10 through Friday, May 12 HERE. It’s Book 2 of a series, and, while easily read on its own, I’ve discounted Book 1 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles, Off Balance, to 99 cents for the month of May, if you’d prefer to start there.  You can find that book HERE.

Want to hear others’ stories about acoustic neuromas? HERE is a great blog from writer Lucie Smoker, an acoustic neuroma survivor. And actress and fashion designer Tara Subkoff tells her story for Harper’s Bazaar HERE.

Today, and all week long, I will lift my hat to all of you who’ve had to deal with this rare and challenging condition. You are warriors, survivors and heroes, each and every one of you.

 

Me and my sisters. Orange Classical Girl next to white-shirt, acoustic neuroma survivor, Maureen.

May 7-13, 2017 marks the fifth annual ANAwareness Week hosted by the Acoustic Neuroma Association®(ANA). ANA invites you to raise awareness of acoustic neuroma and the challenges facing acoustic neuroma patients, their family members and caregivers while recognizing their accomplishments. Visit www.ANAUSA.org and follow them on Facebook.

New to 2017: Classical Girl Giving

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“Help save the world” sounds like a rather ambitious 2017 New Year’s resolution, so I won’t call it that. But there is this new thing rising in me that I feel compelled to share.

It all started last spring. With my son turning seventeen, and a trio of Really Challenging Years behind us, something in me began to relax, or maybe wake up, to the fact that this world of ours comes with a host of Really Big Problems to try and help solve. Or maybe my daily mindfulness meditation practice starting yielding its own results. Point being: I heard the whisper of a call.

Now, I will argue that devoting oneself to passive tasks such as writing about the arts is not completely off the mark in the department of “helping to save the world” and/or make it a better place. If everyone spent their time immersed in work they found relevant, nourishing, challenging, important, I’m willing to bet we’d all live on a more peaceful planet.

That said. You tell people you served two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa, and it will produce a different reaction from when you tell them you’re a blogger who devotes big chunks of your day to waxing lyrically about the performing arts—preferably the fuddy-duddy classical stuff from the 19th and early 20th century.

Did I tell you I served two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa?

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But that was another life entirely. Decades ago. Writing novels and raising a family claimed that space in my heart, it would seem. Until one day last May, after a Diablo Ballet performance, when I was talking with the company’s artistic director, Lauren Jonas. Art has a way of clearing out my inner clutter to begin with, and it had been a delightful, artful program. Lauren was telling me about a new extension of their PEEK* outreach program. This endeavor, funded by a California Arts Council grant, brought Lauren and PEEK’s associate director, former company dancer Edward Stegge, into Juvenile Hall, where they presented movement classes to at-risk incarcerated 15-to-17 year-old girls as part of their in-house Court School Program.

Diablo Ballet had been one of only eight organizations receiving awards for this highly competitive and limited-funds program, called JUMP StArts*. Lauren told me she’d been thrilled. “When I co-founded Diablo Ballet, back in 1993,” she said, “something like this had always been a part of the plan, the dream.”

Lauren shared a few details about the program, that had begun in mid-July the previous year. Once inside the facility, she and Eddie were screened and fingerprinted, given a list of things they could and could not do. They’d been told what colors they should not wear, questions they could not ask. They had to be accompanied by guards and were warned that some of the girls might have difficulty expressing themselves, and/or might start fights.

And then the once-weekly program started. Not dance classes or lectures, so much as movement creation exercises, discussions that taught the teen girls about themselves, their bodies, the self-esteem within them Lauren believed could be coaxed out, and a healthier self-expression. After just one session, Lauren and Eddie knew they had found something extraordinary. Some weeks they brought a musician along for live music, like Bolivian guitarist Gabriel Navia, which the girls loved. Sometimes they brought other dancers, like company member Amanda Farris, whom the girls had seen on the cover of the Diablo Ballet magazine. Here she was now, beautiful, famous, and so warm, so accessible! Venezuelan company member Rosselyn Ramirez was another great hit with the dancers. During one movement exercise, she assured a particularly difficult girl that the way she was doing the movement was perfect. The girl clasped her hands together and turned to her neighbor. “Did you hear that?” she said in a hushed, awed voice. “She said I was perfect.” Which, when Lauren recounted this to me, made my throat squeeze up.

 

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(*PEEK = Performing Arts Education & Enrichment for Kids)
(*JUMP StArts = Juveniles Utilizing Massive Potential Starting with Arts)

The program ran from July to February. Lauren had already begun searching for additional grants in the hope of keeping the program annual (which they received – yay! – and this second year’s program continues through Feb/early March 2017). She and Eddy agreed that it had been one of the most rewarding experiences they’d ever had.

Her own quiet excitement, enthusiasm, deep commitment, was like a big gong within me. It was a real I want to join the Peace Corps moment, like I’d had at age twenty. It all came rushing back to me, the desire to be more, do more, to try and make a bigger difference in the world.

On my drive home from the performance, a reality check settled in. I’ve come to understand that I am not an extraverted do-er. I had a tough time in the Peace Corps, truth be told. My introverted side took over in a major way and, if I can be honest here, I didn’t do anything noble in the least. My greatest achievement was sticking out my two years and letting the host nationals observe on a daily basis that white, privileged Americans could be bumbling and stupid, make mistakes right and left, and not have any more answers than they did. Outside my teaching hours (English to high school students) I took comfort in writing, being alone. I spent hours journaling, reading, vicariously immersed in someone else’s misadventures, processing and chronicling my thoughts and feelings.

But there’s room in the world for both, right? The world needs the do-ers, the performing artists, activists, leaders and such. But it needs its observers, processors and scribes. Those who can help spread the word and offer support, financial or otherwise.

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Which is what brings me to my 2017 New Year’s resolution. I hereby announce the creation of Classical Girl Giving. I am still in the process of figuring out precisely what this entails, but my thought is to offer a quarterly donation to foundations, companies, choreographers or organizations in order to help support worthy ballet-based [or influenced] dance projects. The inaugural recipient of the Classical Girl Giving project is, no surprise, Diablo Ballet, supporting their PEEK Extension program.

Beyond that? Yikes. I’m a little intimidated. Giving, as it turns out, is harder than just writing a check and handing it over. But the list starts this month, below, and will be added to, quarterly. Hopefully for a long time to come!

Currently Classical Girl Giving favors California and the San Francisco Bay Area, but if you want to recommend a worthy foundation based elsewhere, please do. Are you a choreographer, artistic director, an arts nonprofit administrator who has a candidate to suggest? I’d LOVE your help. You can either contact me privately or leave a message below in “comments.”

2016 Recipients

  • Diablo Ballet/PEEK Extension Program

2017 Recipients

  • Robert Dekkers, artistic director/Post:ballet
  • East Bay Fund for Artists/The McPherson Fund
  • Marika Brussel, choreographer/”From Shadows: a ballet on homelessness”

The New Arrival

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OFF BALANCE is thrilled to announce the arrival of its sister novel in the Ballet Theatre Chronicles series. Welcome to the world, OUTSIDE THE LIMELIGHT!

So, the baby got a lovely write-up in Kirkus Reviews, which summarizes OUTSIDE THE LIMELIGHT as “a lovely and engaging tale of sibling rivalry in the high-stakes dance world.” And remember my recent post on “Ballet Terms Made Simple?” Happy to report that Kirkus liked it, saying, “the glossary of dance terms at the end of the book proves a marvelous resource for the uninitiated,” and announcing, “this is a novel both for ballet lovers and those new to the art.” Cool! You can read the whole review HERE. (Editor’s note on Nov 15: woo hoo, an award! See below for the press release!)

I’m thinking this calls for a glass bubbly tonight. Care to join me? Come join me, as well, on my virtual book tour this week, where I’ll be interviewed or reviewed by the following bloggers, courtesy of Sage’s Blog Tours.

October 30th Freda Hansburg ~ INTERVIEW
October 31st Eskiemama Reads ~ INTERVIEW
November 1st Jessica and Gracie’s Tree ~ REVIEW
November 4th Comfy Reading ~ REVIEW
November 5th Reecaspieces ~ REVIEW

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Visit Sage’s Blog Tours to enter a giveaway for a print copy of OUTSIDE THE LIMELIGHT, matching tote bag and $10 Amazon gift card HERE. Or cut to the chase and buy your own copy right now, HERE.

And by the way, Happy Halloween, San Francisco style! Below is a very cool photo, not retouched or photoshopped, which I saw in the San Francisco Chronicle a few years back, and now feels like the perfect time to use it. Spooky, elegant, and as I was in San Francisco last night, at the symphony (look for a blog on that later this week), it just felt right. The Civic Center was animated, beautifully lit, crowded, crazy, a little weird and unsettling — everything you could hope for in a pre-Halloween Saturday night in San Francisco. And if you’d like a soundtrack to your Halloween, remember to check out my Top 10 Halloween Classical Faves HERE.

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And that award I was talking about, from Kirkus Reviews?