Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Over the River, Through the Woods...

You may remember, from an earlier post, I wrote about a job I once held as a medical transcriptionist for an orthopedic surgeon's office in Syracuse, NY. One day while I was there, a former administrative assistant dropped by to say hello with her cute little two year old boy in tow. Everyone crowded around the woman, getting caught-up and waiting patiently for our office manager, Judie, to release the toddler so the REST of us could see him! After a short time, she declared it was time to go and hugged everyone goodbye. As she knelt in front of her sweet son, zipping up his coat, she excitedly asked him, "Are you ready to go to Grandma's house?" Those simple words, spoken innocently to a two year old, hit me like a punch to the gut. Truth is, no one had asked ME that question in years, and I'd have given everything I own to be "going to Grandma's house" in Bedford, Ohio that day!

Grandma Simmons' house was always a magical place, but at Christmastime it literally sparkled! Underneath her aluminum tree was displayed an entire Christmas village. This was long before "Department 56" and the collectible, expensive communities you can purchase today. Grandma's houses had been expertly hand-crafted several years before by her brother, and she added dyed-green sawdust for grass, simple dollhouse figurines for townspeople, and toy plastic animals to fill her "zoo." The animals were "caged" in upside-down green plastic baskets, formerly holding strawberries from the supermarket.

In her fourier/hallway hung a string of large plastic lights in the shape of gigantic jingle bells. Each one twinkled on and off intermittently, giving a short "ping" when it illuminated again. Also in her fourier was a shelving unit which held her radio, tuned to the station playing Christmas carols, and a modest nativity scene. Actually, her nativity set was displayed year-round. I asked her once, in May, why she hadn't packed it away with the rest of her Christmas decorations. She replied matter-of-factly, "Oh, Jesus is welcome in my home ANY time of the year." Completely covering her front door was a panel depicting Santa, seeming to be opening the door to greet you. I LOVED that panel! Santa was fat, rosy-cheeked, and smiling broadly. He gestured for you to come in, barely revealing a roaring fireplace and Christmas tree in the room behind him.

I think we spent just about every weekend of December at Grandma's magical Christmas house. Looking back, I realize she was actually babysitting us while Mom was out toy shopping for five children. But at the time, I was under the impression that we were sent to Grandma's to endow her with all of our Christmas cheer! During those years, my Grandma's age was probably around 50+. I'm forty-five right now, and I can't imagine entertaining five children, all of them under the age of ten, for several hours each Saturday, grandkids or not! We didn't have VCR's back then, but nobody would've blamed Grandma if she had decided to plunk us all down in front of the TV, supplied a few rounds of Kool-Aid, and simply checked-in on us from time to time.

But that just wasn't my Grandma Simmons' style. We worked on many different Christmas projects over the month, including stenciling her windows and making ornaments for her tree, but the first Saturday was always reserved for baking and decorating Christmas cookies. Her large, round dining room table, covered with several protective tablecloths, served as our "cookie workbench." She'd already have the made-from-scratch sugar cookie dough chilling in her fridge when we arrived. After we had all donned our aprons (mine had yellow flowers on it!), we'd take our places at the table. Each of us had our own rolling pin and flour sifter. In the corner, Perry Como crooned away his Christmas selections on her portable blue plastic record player. In the middle of the table sat her precious red plastic cookie cutters, in the shapes of a Christmas tree, wreath, stocking, toy soldier, and holly, among others. My personal favorite was the one of Santa's jolly head.

Grandma, already sweating underneath her babushka, would bring in her bowl of dough and divide it up amongst the five of us. We began our rolling, flouring, and cutting, depositing our "artwork" on the provided cookie sheets. Grandma never sat down. She was in constant motion, running from our table to the kitchen, taking away and replenishing the cookie sheets, making more dough, helping us master our rolling pins, and "unsticking" dough from under-floured cutters. She also saw to it that each of our cups of Pepsi remained nice and full so we could efficiently wash down all the raw dough we were consuming (My sweet husband, the restaurant man/health code expert, saw me lick a beater when I was baking once. He scolded me, warning me of the dangers of salmonella. I recalled the gallons of raw dough I had consumed at Grandma's over the years, and laughed in his poor face!).

After our artwork had properly baked, Phase Two began. Grandma would bring to our table the cookies, along with several small bowls of her homemade icing. We added to each bowl a different food color; red, yellow, green and blue (one was kept white), then began our decorating. Along with the icing, of course, were several choices of sprinkles, along with my personal favorite, a jar of maraschino cherries. My first decorated cookie was always that Santa head, because I LOVED to place one of those cherries on his nose (Brilliant, I know! Grandma taught me THAT one!).

Several hours later, when Perry Como had sung "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" for the billionth time, and we had all slipped into cookie dough/sugar icing comas, we'd drift away from the table and head to the living room to watch the color wheel illuminate her aluminum tree and village beneath, officially done for another year. I can't even begin to imagine the mess that was left behind, along with several dozen undecorated cookies. Grandma would finish them up on her own and have everything neat and clean when Mom came to collect us that evening. To this day, I have no idea how the woman managed to remain standing, but she'd still wrap us up in her arms and give us kisses goodbye as we exited her home at day's end.

Like all children, we never appreciated the enormous amount of time and effort that went into that day of baking at her house. Looking back, I know that she enjoyed our time together immensely and she knew she was creating some profoundly lovely, timeless memories. But today, when I recall those beautiful Saturdays in December, I'm completely overwhelmed by the thought of how exhausting it all must have been for her. She never let the fatigue show. Ever.

After Grandma's death, my siblings and I spent an unbearably sad day with my mother going through her house, dividing-up her belongings. When we got to those red plastic cookie cutters, we decided there were more than enough for each of us to take a few for our own. That following Christmas, I pulled-out my portion, ready to whip up a batch of santa heads and wreaths. But I couldn't do it. Somehow, it didn't seem right to be using those cutters anywhere but at that large dining room table, wrapped in a yellow floral apron, surrounded by my siblings, listening to Perry Como. I put them all away and postponed the baking for another year, then another and another.

So this year, in my new home with some extra time on my hands, I've been thinking about pulling out those long-retired red plastic treasures and putting them to use. All these years later, it's still going to be difficult. Missing Grandma Simmons, I've learned, is a constant. My grief's sharp edges have rounded a bit over the years, but there remains a dull ache that intensifies just a tick during Christmastime. Still, I think she would tell me it was time. Just like she welcomed the baby Jesus into her home all year long, I know she is residing in HIS home these days, FINALLY getting a much-deserved rest, and wants me to be happy. So, I'm going to download that terrible Perry Como Christmas album on my ipod, dust off my rolling pin, and honor a memory that's been patiently waiting for my return. Anybody know which aisle of the grocery store you can find a jar of maraschino cherries?

Merry Christmas, Grandma Simmons. Miss you.

Thanks for reading!!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

"It's Been Done."

There is a great story that is told regarding the late, great Judy Garland. Everyone remembers Judy most prominently from her legendary portrayal of Dorothy Gale in the classic movie, "The Wizard of Oz." In it, Judy performed the haunting ballad, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," instantly making it an enormous hit. The tune immediately became Judy's signature song. She was asked to perform "Rainbow" every time she appeared on radio programs, in her concerts, and even in the living rooms of homes where she was an invited guest.

Judy's daughter, Liza Minnelli, inherited her mother's awesome singing ability and quickly became an outright star on her own. Several years after Judy's death, Liza was performing her act to a standing-room-only crowd when an admirer in the audience yelled up to her, "Do 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow!'" The audience broke into thunderous, encouraging applause, pleading with the singer to perform her mother's signature song. The story goes that Liza waited patiently for the clapping and cheering to subside, paused, and looked down at the floor. Then she brought the microphone to her lips and uttered three words: "It's been done."

Say what you want about Ms. Minnelli, she's had her struggles with drug abuse, and no one would covet her husband-choosing skills, but the lady's got some class. I've heard that she's been asked to sing that song countless times by audiences all over the world. She always responds with those three words. It would be so easy for her to make a quick buck doing exactly the opposite, recording "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" along with her mother's other hits, labeling it a "Tribute Album" and watching as the cash flowed in. But Liza, wisely in my opinion, decided that the greatest tribute she could pay her mother was to let Judy Garland's work stand on it's own. Judy's version is simple, beautiful, and perfect. It needs no improvement. It's been done.

I think about Liza's words every time Christmas rolls around and we see another pop star and/or former American Idol contestant produce their own Christmas album. Don't get me wrong, I think it's fantastic, and I certainly don't want to discourage anyone from contributing to overall holiday merriness. But instead of writing new, crisp Christmas songs for their own generation, I find that the majority of them simply (and lazily, in my opinion) record the old standards like "Jingle Bells," "White Christmas," and "The Christmas Song." Most of them don't even attempt to make a snappy new arrangement. It sounds like they've picked-up the sheet music, performed it like everyone else over the last fifty years, and called it a day. I've always wondered, do they actually believe their version is somehow different, or for that matter, better than all of those before them?

So, with that in mind, I hope you'll indulge me as I shoot-out the following open letter to every single new performer in the recording industry. This just really needs to be said...

Dear Every Single New Performer in the Recording Industry:

First off, congratulations!! You've made it to the big time! Good for you! This means you've obviously started making plans for your first Christmas album. How exciting for you!! On behalf of everyone in the real world who will be listening to your Christmas recordings, whether over our own stereos or out of the speakers of the food court at the mall, may I offer a few suggestions? Let's start with the "Don't List," shall we?

DON'T record "White Christmas." I know the idea is tempting, it's such a perfect, beautiful song. It's actually my favorite Christmas song of all time, which is why I must insist that you avoid it. It was written in 1940 by Irving Berlin and was made famous when Bing Crosby sang it in the movie, "Holiday Inn." You may not know Bing Crosby, he was a horrific father and husband, but an absolutely awesome, ridiculously talented, velvet-voiced crooner. He recorded "White Christmas" on archaic equipment that was just a tiny bit more advanced than a soup can with a string on the end -- and it's still far, far better than anyone's version since. So, if you happen to hear Bing's recording and get the urge to attempt to outdo his "voice of butter," stop. Just stop. "It's been done."

DON'T record "The Christmas Song." I know, I know, it's so PERFECT. It's practically TEXTBOOK "First Christmas Album" must-record for a new artist. But don't. Have you ever heard Nat King Cole's version of this song? It's pretty breathtaking. Nat's natural phrasing ability and unique vocal quality make it impossible for anyone to try to match. "A Christmas Song" was actually written by another great singer, Mel Torme. Mel's unfortunately passed away, but I bet if you were to ask him today to record his timeless, classic song, his exact words would be the following: "It's been done." Nat is King. His version rules. Period.

DON'T record "Merry Christmas, Darling." This is pretty much a no-brainer, since the rich, deep voice of Karen Carpenter could never be duplicated, nor it's quality surpassed by any human being on the planet. Actually, maybe you could find inspiration in Karen's singing of this song. She and her brother are a great example of people who created their OWN Christmas classic. Richard wrote the song, she recorded it, and the world now wants to hear only their sweet, clear version. Why? Oh, you know! Say it with me, "It's been done!" Yes!!

OK, so, that wasn't too bad, right? Here's the good news: there is a whole PLETHORA of songs that haven't yet been taken! So, if you don't posses the drive and/or talent to write and perform your own, original Christmas songs, feel free to "knock yourself out" with the following "DO List:"

Rocking Around the Christmas Tree
Jingle Bells
Jingle Bell Rock
Sleigh Ride
Winter Wonderland
Let it Snow
And all of the others!!!

I'm sure that YOUR version of these songs won't be ANYTHING like those of the hundreds of teen sensations that have recorded them before you. Yours, unlike ALL of theirs, will be unique and SPECIAL!!

Well, that's all I had to say. I know you value the advice of an opinionated, middle-aged, former actress who never got anywhere CLOSE to achieving the level of show-biz success that you're enjoying. There's no need to thank me! If I can be any further help, please don't hesitate to ask! I'd love to chat sometime about your ass-crack revealing pants and your make up that makes you look like a whore, but that's for another time!!

Good luck, go get 'em, and...

Thanks for Reading!!!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Phyllis' Christmas Treasures

Meals on Wheels is a fantastic organization serving countless communities in states all across the country. It's premise is simple: providing hot meals to senior citizens and shut-ins who are unable to afford and/or prepare the meals for themselves. During the time that Trixie and I were involved with our nursing home visits, organized through the SPCA of Central Florida, an urgent call came through from the Meals on Wheels people.

Apparently, there was a growing concern that many of their clients were not consuming the delivered meals themselves. They were going hungry because they were feeding their rations to their own pets instead. They couldn't afford dog or cat food, so they were giving what they had to their precious companions. The organization asked if there was anything the SPCA could do to help them.

I'll always be so proud of how quickly and efficiently the president of the SPCA of Central Florida, Barbara Wetzler, responded. Within just a few weeks, she had convinced Tupperware to donate dozens of large containers, sent out word that dog and cat food donations were being accepted, got a list of names of clients and their mapped-out locations, and rounded up a core of volunteers to make the deliveries. There is a special place in heaven for Barbara Wetzler!

When word was sent out about the need for delivery people, I signed up without hesitation. I'm always looking for ways to honor the memory of my sweet Grandma Simmons, and I knew she'd love the idea of taking care of senior citizens' pets this way. At the orientation, the rules were pretty cut and dried: each driver would receive three names with a corresponding map. On the day of your delivery, you simply dropped by the SPCA, dropped off your empty bins, picked up new, filled ones, and set out. They asked you to call each client in advance each month, as many would be hesitant to answer the door if they didn't already know you were coming by. They also advised letting the phone ring several times, old bones take a little longer getting out of chairs and walking to the phone!

I was eager to get started and set out as soon as I left orientation. My first two deliveries were very similar. The clients greeted me, let me pat their dog or cat's head from my place on their front stoop, then waved a cheery "good-bye" and quickly shut the door. My last stop was at a tiny house in a poor neighborhood. It looked like it might have been a nice, family community at one point, but that time had long passed. Now the surrounding houses were in disrepair and in great need of new roofs and paint jobs. The house on my list had a decent sized yard surrounded by an ugly chain link fence. I glanced down at the name on my list: "Phyllis -- cat." I grabbed the bin of cat food and lifted the latch on the gate, then proceeded up the front steps and knocked on Phyllis' door.

After several minutes, I heard the deadbolt turn and watched as the door moved inward. There in the doorway stood a tiny woman with long, grey hair pulled back in a ponytail. She was wearing a house dress identical to my Grandma's, and large, thick coke bottle-lensed glasses. Tight around her neck was the type of apparatus found on patients that have undergone a tracheotomy. She smiled and placed a finger over the front hole to speak in a breathy voice, "You must be Joan! You look just like I knew you would when I heard your voice on the phone! Come on in!"

Phyllis led me to her neat, cozy kitchen, sporting wooden cupboards with black hinges and knobs. She told me to just set the cat food under the sink and have a seat with her at the table. On her table sat a large tray containing several prescription bottles. In the course of our conversation that first day, she told me about her many ailments: the tracheotomy, diabetes for which she gave herself daily injections, poor eyesight and hearing (her phone had one of those blinking light attachments that alerted her when a call was coming in), severe arthritis, and some brushes with cancer. It was funny, though, how her "malady listing" didn't come across at all like complaining. Phyllis seemed to accept the fact that her body was wearing down, but was also truly fascinated with the modern medical procedures being employed to keep her going. I found myself recalling all of the Alzheimer's patients Trixie and I had visited at the nursing home. Many of them, despite their severe mental limitations, were otherwise physically healthy as horses. Phyllis was exactly the opposite. Her poor body was breaking down, but her mind remained sharp as a tack. She remembered exact dates when telling stories, often beginning, "In June of 1962...no, excuse me, it was JULY of 1963..."

Phyllis became my favorite delivery stop. I'd always save hers for last because I knew she'd expect me to come in and "sit a spell." When I was picking up her cat food, I decided I wanted to bring my new friend a treat as well. I knew with all of her diet restrictions that a food item was out. Then I was at the Hallmark store and spotted a small stuffed animal cat. I had seen similar ones on the shelf of her living room, so I decided maybe she'd like another.

I entered her kitchen as always that day, placed the cat food bin under her sink, then handed her the gift bag. "Just a silly little nothing for you," I told her. She unwrapped the tissue and held the little cat up close to her weak eyes. She turned to me, gave me a huge smile, and hugged it to her face, cradling it like a doll. I became addicted to that smile. I couldn't get enough of it. So, every month I arrived with a new gift, usually of the stuffed variety. That beautiful, sweet smile was my payment, and she always gave it generously.

I should've realized that I was over-doing it with the gift giving, however, because I soon learned that Phyllis felt the need to reciprocate. I arrived one day to find a large cardboard box sitting at my place on her kitchen table. "Have a seat," she instructed me. She explained that she'd been going through some things and came across this box of her Christmas decorations. She said she wasn't going to be putting them out anymore, and she'd like for me to have them (she'd been noticing my holiday sweaters!). I told her I'd be happy to help her adorn her home with the decorations if she'd like, she didn't need to get rid of them. She waved my suggestion away with a wrinkled hand and reached in to pull out her first treasure. It was a six inch soft plastic reindeer. At least that's what I think it was. The paint was very faded and the tip of it's tail was broken off. There was a hole on the underside of it's belly where you could place a small light bulb to illuminate it, but that was long gone. She turned it around in her hand and looked at it with dreamy eyes, then placed it on the table. Then she reached in the box and pulled out the next item, a plastic, faded snowman. She brought out item after worthless item, unwrapping each from it's paper towel, placing it on her table with the delicacy usually reserved for Faberge eggs. She never offered a story to go with any one object. She just smiled while she silently held each of them up to her face, then set it back down again.

When all the items had been unwrapped, she turned to me and asked, "Well, what do you think? Would you like them?" I told her that I really thought she should hang on to them. "Nonsense!" she quipped, "I'm too old to be messing with them anymore. If you don't take them, I'll just donate them to the poor." I told Phyllis I would take them, thanked her for her generosity, and promptly placed them in my attic when I got home.

Phyllis' health continued to deteriorate. I arrived one month and she greeted me at the door, clearly distracted about something. After a little prodding, I got her to tell me. She had been losing so much weight that her doctor had surgically inserted a feeding tube into her stomach. She now "fed" herself twice a day with a bag provided by the hospital, and was no longer a candidate for Meals on Wheels. She was terrified that this also meant she would no longer be receiving cat food. I grabbed my friend's sweet, leather hand and told her that as LONG as she needed it, I would be bringing her cat food.

The next month I dialed Phyllis' number to tell her I'd be by that day. The phone rang and rang. No answer. "Probably just at one of her doctor appointments," I told myself, trying not to think about the alternative. When no one answered later that day, I knew I had to do something. I found the number of her social worker, Mary, who had been providing her general care and rides to the doctor's. She confirmed my worst fears, Phyllis had died. Mary told me that she'd arrived at Phyllis' home one morning and found her still in her bed, no sign of struggle. Phyllis had died peacefully in her sleep.

When someone like Phyllis passes away, someone who had no family and so many physical ailments, we tend to feel relief that they're no longer in pain and now hopefully reunited with their loved ones in the hereafter. But truthfully, I missed my friend and her beautiful smile.

I was packing up the house in Orlando last year in preparation for the big move to Pennsylvania when I came across that box of Phyllis' decorations. Such silly, worthless trinkets, but so dear to one. I wished I had prodded her more about the stories behind each of those pieces. We were in the process of some major downsizing for the move, and I knew I couldn't take the box with me, but I also didn't have the heart to throw them away. I decided to honor Phyllis' second wish and take them to "The Poor." I don't know if Goodwill would find any use for a box of faded Christmas trinkets, but I'd like to think that someone found them as beautiful and special as Phyllis did, and have them displayed on their table this Christmas.

As I write this, I look around my living room at my own decorations. As much as I cherish them and the Christmas memories they invoke, none of my felt santas or folk art angels posses any monetary value, that's for sure. I'm sure someday, after I'm gone, my worthless treasures will all be boxed up and taken to Goodwill. I just hope "The Poor" truly appreciates the intense awesomeness of a fabric moose wearing a "noel" sweater, or a snowman wearing a stocking cap on snow skis!!

Merry Christmas, sweet Phyllis.

Thanks for reading!!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Sandy Claus (and Jack)

Aqua blue. It was aqua blue. You know, the hue that's only found in swimming pool interiors and 1950's kitchens. THAT aqua blue. It smelled of new plastic and electrical chords. It was the object of my desire and therefore graced the very top of my Christmas list that December of 1971. My treasure? A small, tabletop organ (I'm talking about a musical organ, not a kidney. I think it might be important to clarify!).

I first laid eyes on my hard plastic beauty when the family was visiting Cleveland's own version of Toys R Us. Ours was a giant toy extravaganza called "Children's Palace." They had one of these aqua blue musical dreams on display there, along with the "easy to use" music book. After only a few clumsily executed choruses of "I Love You Truly," I was hooked and knew it was EXACTLY what I wanted for Christmas.

When my mother inquired about my holiday toy of choice a few days later, I replied without hesitation. "I want an aqua blue plastic table organ." I watched as she nervously chewed on the inside of her lip. Then she said, "Honey, I think that's a little too expensive a gift to be asking for this year." I consoled my poor, obviously clueless Mother by patting her on the hand and saying, "Don't worry, Mom. I asked SANTA for the organ. HE'LL bring it for me. You don't have to worry about a thing!" Funny, my reassuring words didn't seem to comfort her much. But guess what? There on Christmas morning, under the shade of our hideous fake tree, sat my aqua blue jewel. Thanks, Santa!!

Then there was the year I reached into my stocking Christmas morning and found a deck of beautiful ballerina playing cards. There, on the cellophane wrapper, was the distinct paper residue of a price tag! I was onto my mother! I sauntered into the kitchen in all my "Smarty Pants" glory. I found my mother hunched over the sink, peeling potatoes for Christmas dinner. "Mom," I said with a wink, "YOU got me the ballerina cards, didn't you? Santa didn't bring them, you BOUGHT them for me, right?" She paused in mid-peel, turned to her middle child, blew her bangs off her face, smiled and confessed, "Yes, Joan, you got me. I DID buy the ballerina cards. I didn't want Santa to have all the fun!" Did my mom ROCK, or what?

But then came that Christmas Eve a few years later. It was very late, long after the annual Donnelly extended family gathering had ended. Mass had been attended, ham and nut roll had been consumed, and we kids were all back home securely tucked in our beds, anxious for morning. But I couldn't sleep. Too excited. I knew my younger sister Jennifer was out like a light, I could hear her rhythmic breathing coming from the top bunk. I was panicked. I KNEW that if I wasn't sleeping, Santa wouldn't stop by our house, and the mere THOUGHT of ruining Christmas not only for me, but for my siblings, was maddening. The more tense I grew from ruminating over my insomnia, the more fleeting was my slumber. That's when I saw them.

To this day, I'll never understand why my parents never thought to close our bedroom door, but they left it wide open. First I saw my father set-up, then climb a ladder to remove the large square in the ceiling that closed-off our attic. Then, in confused horror, I watched as my Dad passed present after present to my mom, who was waiting at the ladder's base. All Santa's presents. All of them, stored in our attic.

Then, it hit me. Like an accident victim who's life flashes before him at the point of sudden impact, my "Santa memories" paraded across my brain in rapid succession: That guy in the white, fake beard sitting on the red throne at the mall--FAKE (I should've guessed when I saw the thick, black-rimmed, Buddy Holly glasses he wore with his red suit! How could I have been so naive?). The North Pole had no workshop. Elves didn't make dolls. There were no elves. My ballerina cards, pool-hued organ, Tubsy...ALL of them, not from Santa. Just my parents, Jack and Sandy, Children's Palace shoppers.

But I must tell you, even at that age, when you could have sliced my soul-crushing disappointment with a knife, another thought surfaced in my young brain. That expensive, ugly organ, my scores of cherished dolls in every shape and size, these were all provided by these two hard working people who loved me fiercely. These two people loved me enough to let some fat, jolly, white-bearded elf take credit for all the sacrificing they'd done to afford these treasures for me. I gotta tell you, as crushed as I felt, I was also deeply humbled.

Santa may have been merely a myth, but that night I learned that my parents were the real Christmas deal. Jack and Sandy Donnelly didn't ride in a sleigh or employ magic reindeer and tiny elves, that's for certain. And their "door-closing forethoughtfulness" was obviously greatly lacking. But together that night, they gave me my first lesson on the true spirit of the season: when you give with a joyful and selfless heart, heaven and nature sing and all is merry and bright!

Thanks for reading!!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


My Father called me yesterday to reserve the thigh of the turkey for Thanksgiving. I'm being completely serious. So was he. We were right in the middle of a discussion about flight times and pick-ups outside of baggage claim when he said, "I have a favor to ask your husband (the chef and maker of all our Thanksgiving meals). Could you tell him that I would like one of the thighs of the turkey this year?"

Never mind that he and Mom have been eating Thanksgiving dinner at our home for decades, and that Alan is very aware of Dad's "thigh obsession" in the turkey department and therefore always (ALWAYS!) presents him with the coveted dark meat section. Dad still somehow felt the need to place his order. He did the same thing last year at Christmas when he phoned and told me what guest room of mine he preferred, and was calling ahead to place his reservation.

Needless to say, I'm going to have my hands full over the next several days. Starting tonight, my company will begin arriving; my parents and two of my sisters, along with their spouses and one niece. This is why I am sitting here in my living room at 5:00 am after having just finished cleaning the guest bathroom and sweeping the floor. I'm WAY too excited to sleep! My family is going to see my new house for the first time, dinner will be served in my new dining room, and we have a brand new shopping area to explore on Black Friday! I simply cannot wait!

So you probably won't be hearing from me for a few days. But I wanted to be sure and take a quick moment to wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving. Whether you're celebrating it by working a shift at a theme park (I'll be thinking of you guys!), eating a quiet dinner with someone special, or feasting with an enormous group of quirky family members, I hope it is equally delicious and precious, and that you come away with happy memories and new stories to tell!
At the very top of my "Blessings" list this year, my friends, will be YOU. I'm so grateful for your continuing readership, and for your kind words of encouragement. Praise from you, to quote my friend Stasha, "is like hot chocolate -- super tasty and makes me feel all warm and snuggy inside!"

Once my family has left and we're all going full Christmas throttle, rest assured I'll be back to write some more. I have a whole treasure trove of holiday memories for you, maybe you'll recognize your own family celebrations in them. In the meantime: Gobble, gobble. And as always, but today especially...

Thanks for Reading!!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Miracle on Cherry Street

A dear friend of mine posted an exasperated note on facebook a few days ago. She simply wrote: "Stop with the Christmas decorations...and music...and commercials before Thanksgiving!!" Many people commented with remarks like "There should be a law!" and "I agree. It's SO annoying!" I must confess, I'm one of those offensive people who LOVE the fact that Christmas comes earlier and earlier every year.

I certainly appreciate my friend's reluctance to "skip over" Thanksgiving, but I've got to tell you, the first time I hear Christmas music playing in a public place, I smile, close my eyes, and enjoy every note. My only excuse is this: December is such a busy month, you blink and suddenly it's New Year's Eve, you're taking down your boughs of holly and packing them away for another year. I like that I can now have all of November to sort of get a Christmas "running start."

Truth is, I love EVERYTHING about the Christmas season; the baking, decorating, Christmas specials and movies on TV every night, concerts at schools and churches, office parties, gingerbread lattes at Starbucks, and yes, even shopping! Why would anyone be opposed to this fantastic season being elongated? I don't get it.

But of all the above-listed Christmas activities, my hands-down favorite has always revolved around decorating and enjoying the tree. From Rockefeller Center to Charlie Brown, I've never seen a Christmas tree that didn't completely embody the excitement and magic of the season. Here's a story about a few of them:

Our Donnelly family tree certainly wouldn't have won any decorating awards. It was an early version of the artificial kind, long before the fake tree industry perfected the "making it appear real" thing. Our 7.5 foot "pine" was a shade of green not found in any forest, and it's branches resembled large, bristly pipe cleaners. You have to really stare at many of today's artificial trees to determine whether or not they're real. If you so much as caught a quick glimpse at the Donnelly tree in your peripheral vision, you could quite confidently point and shout, "FAKE!!" Still, it was ours and we kids loved it.

We decorated the tree in the same order every year. First, while all us kids stood on the perimeter of the living room, Dad would assemble the "branches" on the "tree," then string on the lights. We children were not permitted to participate in this process because it was deemed too dangerous and, therefore, Dad's job. He had a "light stringing system" that was closely observed by us kids on the sidelines. First went the string of twinkling bell lights on the bottom branches, followed by the glowing snow ball lights a little higher, and finally the regular, big, multi-colored bulbs applied to the remaining upper half of the tree. By the time Dad (FINALLY) completed the light stringing, we kids were like anxious thoroughbreds lined up in the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby, jumping, pacing, and sighing, desperate for our turn at the glorious tree. Mom made us wait while she placed several boxes, containing all our tissue-wrapped ornaments, side by side, on our couch. She would remove the lids, then say, "Ok," and we'd exhale, squeal, and dive into the boxes.

Once every ornament was hung, mom would pass out the tinsel. We'd all line up, palms flat and sideways, and Mom would drape a handful of the shiny silver over our outstretched hands. I think the whole process, start to finish, took about 17 seconds. But after our task was complete, we'd stand back, throw on some Bing Crosby or Steve and Edie Christmas records, and admire our work -- perfection again!

This is the part where I need to remind you about my father, aka: Nervous Nellie. In addition to being certain that all of his children would be robbed at gunpoint on our cul-de-sac, he was also convinced that our home would eventually be somehow engulfed in flames due to some careless accident, and the mere thought of it drove him to insanity. A candle was never lit in the Donnelly household -- too risky. And at just about every other evening meal, my father would crinkle up his face, sniff the air, and ask my mother, "Do you smell that?" He never heard her reply, however, because he was already sprinting down the stairs to check for the nonexistent flames in the basement.

So, the Christmas tree, even though it's pipe cleaner branches were thoroughly doused in the finest flame retardant on the planet, was the object of a lot of nervous hand-wringing throughout Dad's holiday season. We were allowed to illuminate the tree lights for approximately 37 seconds every day. After that, we had to quickly pull the plug, because "those things heat up fast, then they explode and before you know it, the whole HOUSE is on fire!" On Christmas day, we were permitted to leave the tree lights on all morning during the opening of presents, although we'd catch Dad intermittently "pinching" the bulbs, testing their "fire-starting" hotness. Looking back, I'm quite sure the whole day must have been torture for the poor guy.

When I got married and moved to NYC, I still insisted on getting a small tree, even though space was definitely limited in our tiny studio apartment. We had no ornaments except for the few we received as wedding gifts, so we went to Sears and purchased a few more to fill-in the holes. My ex-husband wasn't all that into decorating, so I'd do the tree up while he was at his show in the evening. When he walked through the door that night, I'd gesture at the tree and exclaim, "Ta-Da!!" He always responded with the appropriate "Oooohs" and "Ahhhs."

The first Christmas after he left me, I was determined to continue to make the holiday season special. I was living alone in my little drafty, upstairs apartment on Cherry Street in Syracuse, NY, working two jobs to make ends meet. But I really, really wanted a tree. I decided to try and make it work, even if I had to get a tiny, table-top version.

I arrived at the Christmas tree lot late one night after work. It was already dark outside, but the illuminated string of light bulbs around the lot told me it was still open, even though I was the only customer there. There was a trailer nearby, and a man about 55 or so, wearing a red flannel shirt, overalls, and a tweed cap came bounding out of it, waving to me. "Can I help you?" he asked with a kind smile, rubbing his hands together for warmth. "Just looking for a small tree," I chirped back, then headed for the "3 ft." sign.

I was running my hand over the bristles of a small pine when the man suddenly appeared again, carrying a much larger fraser fir. It was just beautiful. Perfect. Straight as an arrow, with full, symmetrical branches. I knew immediately that I couldn't afford it, so I smiled and said, "Pretty!" Then I turned back to the 3-footer, which now looked extra puny, thanks to Flannel Man. "You don't like it?" he asked. "Oh, yes, I like it very much. It's just a little...extravagant for me right now." I tried to sound nonchalant. He looked at me for a long beat, then sighed and said, "Ten bucks." Gasp. "Really?" I asked. "Sure," he shrugged, his smile growing larger, "Go inside the trailer and pay my wife. I'll tie this to the roof of your car." I decided to go before he changed his mind. I practically skipped to the trailer. I couldn't believe that gorgeous tree was going to be mine.

The woman who greeted me inside was also in her fifties, with soft grey, curly hair that perfectly framed her sweet, wide face. She told me to have a seat and poured me a cup of hot chocolate (really!) while I wrote out a check. For ten dollars. For the perfect Christmas tree. Ten. Dollars. She placed my check in her cash box and and we both wrapped our hands around our warm mugs and chatted until her husband came bounding back into the trailer, saying, "She's all set!" I handed the sweet woman my cup and stepped toward the door. I grabbed the handle and turned to thank them again, telling them I'd never be able to explain how much their generosity had meant to me, or how very much I appreciated it. They just tut-tutted, patted my shoulder and said, "Take care, Merry Christmas!"

By the time I got home to Cherry Street it was very late, but I couldn't wait to get started. I hauled my treasure up the narrow back steps and set it in the stand I had waiting in the living room. The lights went on quickly. I paused before I opened the small box of ornaments. These were ornaments that my ex and I had picked-out together, ornaments I assumed we'd be unwrapping with old, wrinkled hands someday, years and years in the future. Now it was just me. I took a deep breath and threw open the lid. I started to unwrap them, trying to focus on each one's branch placement rather than it's sentimental meaning. When I was finished I added red ribbon from my craft bin for garland. Then I stepped back.

Suddenly, there, in the middle of this sad, empty apartment, was Christmas. I pulled the rolled-up futon mattress from the closet, set it out right there on the living room floor, and fell asleep looking at my beautiful tree. I slept (soundly) on that futon every night for the whole month of December. My bed was too big and lonely anyway. I'd leave all the lights on (don't you DARE tell my father!), and when I woke up in the morning, there it would stand, shiny and bright, saying "Merry Christmas!" Yes, divorce was crippling -- but it was no match for Christmas.

Alan and I will be decorating our tree tomorrow afternoon, and I must tell you, I can't wait! We'll be hanging all of our cherished ornaments, from the many places we've traveled over the years. But I'll still pull out one or two others that were purchased from Sears over twenty years ago. I'll place then on the tree to remind myself of that December long ago on Cherry Street, when a gorgeous, ten dollar tree helped me remember that life could still be special and magical.

So do me a favor. When you're in the supermarket tomorrow and you start hearing Jose Feliciano wailing out "Feliz Navidad," don't groan. Grab a couple cans of mixed nuts, shake then like maracas, and join Jose in song. Because it's Christmastime again, how great is THAT?!!!

Thanks for reading!!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Wattle I Do?

I distinctly remember the first time I found a grey hair on my head. Actually, it was my girlfriend and fellow musical theater classmate, Margie, who made the discovery. We were sophmores in college, sitting in our "method acting" class, watching the student at the front of the room execute "unpleasant smell." Suddenly, Margie placed her hand on top of my head and said "Don't move." She used her index finger and thumb to expertly pluck the strand, then presented it to me. There it was, silver as Christmas tinsel. I remember my only thought at the time was, "Good Lord, I'm NINETEEN!!"

Actually, grey hair aside, I was always told I looked young for my age during that time. When I was auditioning for ingenue roles in my twenties, I was often cut immediately for being the wrong type. The casting director would explain that I looked far too young to play a twenty year old. I was always carded when I bought alcohol, even after I turned thirty. Then one day, overnight, everything changed. I had my I.D. in my hand when I was buying a bottle of wine at the grocery store, ready to present it to the cashier when the register prompted her to enter my birthdate. But she didn't ask for it. Instead, she looked from her register to my face, paused a beat, then hit a button that apparently just said "OLD," and the scan was complete. I joked about it with Alan when I got home, but I have to admit, it stung a little bit.

Lately, I've been noticing a whole lot more of the "sliding" happening regarding my aging. I look at pictures of myself that were taken on our recent vacation trips, showing us at events for which I got especially "dolled-up." When we bring the camera home and plug it into the computer, I'm a little shocked at the appearance of the image staring back at me on the screen. When did those large bags under my eyes get there? The real frightening pictures are the shots taken of my profile. This is when I can gaze, horrified, at the "wattle" forming under my chin, along with the two "jowly things" framing it on either side. Who is that old lady?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those people that's had to rely on looks to get anywhere in life. I've never, ever been considered "The Prettiest Girl in the Room." When people are asked to describe me, they usually use adjectives like, "Perky," "Effervescent," or "Loud." No one ever leads-off with "Beautiful." I once scored an interview with a casting director for a soap opera after I sent her my picture and resume, one a week, for several months. She eventually called me, exasperated, and said, "I can now wallpaper my entire office with your face. If I meet with you, do you promise to stop mailing your picture to me?" The first thing she noted when I sat down across the desk from her that day was, "Well, you're not pretty enough to be a lead. I see you more as a 'Best Friend of the Attractive Girl' type." After our brief interview, she never called again. I guess I wasn't appealing enough to even be considered "The Ugly Best Friend" in Soap Opera World!!

But, honestly, I'm really OK with that. I've always felt a little sorry for the Loni Andersons and Suzanne Sommers of the world, who's careers depended solely on how gorgeous they appeared. Once the aging process began, there really wasn't any work for them anymore. I knew I had to rely on my TALENT, not my looks, and talent was pretty ageless, as far as I could tell. Still, those pictures of myself really bugged me.

I always cringe when I see older actresses who cling to their youth by any means necessary. They dye their hair bright orange, paint their eyebrows on, and wear clothing found in the junior departments, all in the attempt to appear young. They get that face-lift procedure that leaves them with that permanent "surprised" expression that scares young children. Then, eventually, finally, they seem to give-in to gravity, stop fighting the inevitable and just start accepting the "grandma roles" instead. They always appear so much more relaxed, in my opinion, when they just stop fighting and accept that they are no longer twenty.

But lately I've wondered if, for all these years now, deep down, I've actually believed that I could somehow "dodge" my own imminent aging process. "After all, I eat healthy and exercise," I told myself, "surely THIS will magically keep the wrinkles and sagging at bay, right?" Wrong. Today I went to get a passport photo taken for upcoming travel. Since I knew I'd be living with this photo for several years, I made sure to put some real effort into my appearance. I curled my hair, applied full make-up, and picked just the right blouse and jewelry. I arrived at our local Walgreens and stood against a white screen while the man snapped my picture. Then, he fed the photo card into a machine and we both watched as my image slowly appeared on it's large computer screen. My friends, this was, BY FAR, the worst picture I have ever seen of myself. There, displayed on that gigantic screen, sat a middle-aged, jowly faced grandma with puffy eyes, flat hair, and too much make-up. I tried to cheer myself up on the drive home by saying things like, "Well, at least the immigration officers at the airports won't be hitting on me!" That thought was soon replaced with, "Is it time to just give up?"

My friend Stasha is an incredibly gifted author who keeps a fantastic blog of her own called "The Dogged Pursuit of Happiness." It's filled with several observations regarding her ongoing quest for joy and contentment in this life. It's brilliant, funny and honest, and I love it! One of my favorite entries of late is the hilariously titled, "Beauty i$ Just Grand..." In it, she reveals how much money she spends each year on beauty maintenance; leg waxing, manicures and pedicures, hair salons, and face creams. She deduces that she forks over upwards of $10,000.00 total each year. She asks the readers who would judge this is as outrageous to take a trip to their local Walmart Superstore. She instructs them to get a good eyeful of all the people there that have simply "given up" on their appearance, then tell her she's being too extravagant. Stasha makes a fantastic point, and I've decided that I agree with her 100%. We work on (and pay for the upkeep of) our appearance for the sake of our spouses as well as our own feeling of self-worth, and I think both are equally vital.

But I feel as though I'm hitting a bit of a "grey area" here (pardon the pun). How far am I from giving up, or how close am I to orange hair and painted eyebrows? I've decided to try and find the happy medium between both. My Grandma Simmons had a fantastic, enormous wattle, with swinging upper arm fat to match. Yet, she still powdered her nose and put on lipstick every time she stepped out in public. I know my neck will resemble Grandma's someday, but I've decided to take my time getting there. I plan to give Father Time a little bit of resistance in the meantime. My hope is that I will be able keep my maintenance realistic, however, and avoid entering fluorescent hair and leopard leggings territory. Before Margie found that silver strand on my head, I had decided I was never going to be what I considered a "fake," and dye my hair. After that first one was plucked, I began making routine coloring appointments. The dying continues to this day, and you can bet it will for years to come. I have also said in the past that I would never undergo facial plastic surgery. I must tell you, the more I see that wattle flapping in the breeze in those pictures, the closer I am to scheduling a few appointments!

But listen, someday in the future, when we're all rocking away on the front porch of our nursing home together, will you do me a favor? It's going to be really tough, but I need you to somehow find the courage within yourself to lean over to me, pat my hand, and say, "Joan, my dear, you're ninety. Seriously, it's time to knock it off with the bright auburn highlights and the triple berry luscious lip gloss, for cripe's sake!" I'll resist you, that's a given. But, for everyone's sake, please be strong!

Thanks for reading!!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Katerina and Me...

Hey Everybody! I'm asking for your indulgence again today. It's come to my attention lately that a large number of my new and old friends who have been reading my blog (THANK YOU!), have also noticed "It's Joan's Journey" on the title page. This is the blog that Alan started regarding my recent diagnosis of non-hodgkins follicular lymphoma (I don't capitalize it, I refuse to give it that much importance!). Because my readers are awesome, caring individuals, they either: a). write me immediately and tearfully inquire as to how many years I have left or, b). are at a loss to find words of comfort, so just kind of slowly back out of my life for fear of saying the wrong thing. I can't bear the thought of any of my friends and family having to endure all this worry, so I thought I'd dedicate today's entry to addressing my stupid disease. This way, I can mention lymphoma in my future posts and everyone can just shrug carelessly and say, "Whatever!"

I went through many months of seeing many doctors before they were finally able to diagnose my cancer, after they removed a lump from my underarm and biopsied it (The first two removed from my neck were negative.) The day my doctor called with the bad news was the very same day Alan found out he was being let go from his job at Bennigan's. Hence, we re-named that day, March 19, 2007, "Worst Day Ever."

On the anniversary of Worst Day Ever the following year, Alan asked me to re-tell my story about that day for the blog. After writing it, we left on a "Worst Day Ever--Change Our Luck" trip to Vegas, where we immediately went to the roulette wheel and played #19 until it hit big!! Anyway, I thought this was a decent description of the whole crazy experience, so I decided to repost it on THIS blog today. Hopefully, it adequately explains everything: I'm SO fine, I only have to get CT scanned twice a year now, and NO ONE needs to worry ONE SECOND MORE about it! Kapeesh? So, enjoy the story, and thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for caring! Here is what I wrote:

Russians Sergei Grinkov, 28, and Katerina Gordeeva, 24, were an unbeatable Olympic pairs skating team in the 80’s and 90’s. They eventually fell in love, married, and had a baby girl, Daria. Daria was only 3 years old when Sergei, in the middle of a routine skating practice, suffered a severe heart attack and died instantly. In an interview shortly after this horrible tragedy, Katerina said she should have known that something bad was going to happen. She said life had been too perfect and happy for it to have ever lasted.

I don’t pretend that my story is in any way comparable to what Katerina endured, but the image of that tearful interview over a decade ago came racing back to me at the end of the day on March 19th, The Worst Day Ever.

Like Katerina, my life is really perfect. I’m married to a man whom I love more intensely with every passing day. We own pets that induce nothing but joyous contentment. Although my job won’t win me any Tony Awards, it’s perfectly suited for my “repetition-is-comfort” and “set-schedule” personality, allowing me to work with talented, funny people I truly enjoy. Long before March 19th, Alan and I would frequently gaze at each other over a couple of beers being enjoyed on our pool deck and agree, “We’re so blessed.”

The day started a bit off my regular schedule. I was training two new girls in my role that evening, so I didn’t have to be at work until after noon. I still woke up early and got my run out of the way so I could enjoy a few hours reading my book and relaxing before I had to leave.

Alan’s boss called while I was on the couch with Trixie and my book. They spoke only a few minutes before his boss got called away and told Alan he’d call right back. Alan hung up and joked, “Well, I guess I’m not getting fired today!” However, when the phone rang again, Alan took the phone in his office and closed the door. I wasn’t paying attention until I distinctly heard Alan saying something about “turning in his laptop.” My blood went cold. No way. There’s no way. I got up and poked my head in, and when Alan saw me he tipped the receiver away from his mouth and casually said, “I’m being let go – it’s OK though. Really. Don’t worry – it’s OK.” It must be exhausting to have to be that brave all the time. I knew he was being cheery for my sake, I knew this had to hurt deeply. My reaction was anger. What IDIOTS! Alan is brilliant. Inconceivable.

I drove to work in silence. The radio seemed too invasive, too loud. I spent the fifty-minute drive trying to prepare myself for change. I wasn’t worried about Alan getting another job, I knew he was a stud and would be snatched-up immediately. But we both knew that at his level, area manager, it would probably require relocating. I prayed out-loud as I drove, reminding God how much I feared change and how much Alan and I loved our life in Florida. I asked for His guidance and help in dealing with where He was leading us.

I told a few people at work about our situation, but soon I was doing shows and focusing on training, pushing it all to the back of my mind. After several shows, I checked my phone and listened to two frantic messages from Alan. Call Dr. Dobradin. The surgeon? I was going to see him in a few days – why call? But I called. He’s with a patient, can he call me right back? Why couldn’t the nurse just tell me what’s going on? It didn’t sound very encouraging. But, I had the next show to do, I’d have to call back after that.

I tried to focus during the show, but I felt like a zombie. When I got offstage, I sprinted back upstairs to the Kimberley “booth” to call the doc again. He was on the other line. Crap! Would I like to hold? Yes. Sigh. The booth that Kimberley (my stage character) sits in backstage is literally the size of a small closet. There’s one bare bulb that weakly illuminates the black walls and one chair. At best, it would be described as “bleak.” I’ve never really minded it before, but as I sat there, on hold, staring ant those depressing black walls, they appeared to be closing in on me.

Just then my friend, our head tech Richie walked by. Boy, was I glad to see him. His happy expression dropped when he looked at me. I blurted out something incoherent like, “Surgeon…called...I’m on hold.” Somehow he understood and quickly stepped into that tiny booth and grabbed my hand. Dr. Dobradin’s words, spoken in his thick Polish accent, were, “Well, the third time’s a charm. We finally figured out what’s wrong with you. The lab work came back positive for lymphoma.” Did I mention Doc Dobradin has the worst bedside manner of anyone in the entire medical profession? He said more, something about how I’d be seeing him again to get something called a “port” surgically inserted for my chemotherapy (!!!), but I had stopped listening by then.

Richie hugged me then went searching for Kleenex as I dialed Alan. I think his response to my news was, “You’re kidding.” It seemed too unbelievable. Then he told me to come home. But I had training! It never occurred to me that my boss would probably excuse me. Once again, in the T2 office, I explained the situation in fragmented sentences and told them I had to go. They couldn’t have been nicer. Ironically, my fellow cast members later told me that when they saw me abruptly and tearfully leaving, they thought it was because I was still upset about Alan’s bad news.

Alan met me at the door when I arrived home. He was so strong and calm. As we held onto each other, he gently said, “When this is all over, we’re going to write a book together about today. We’re going to call it, “Worst Day Ever.”

Katerina Gordeeva went on to perform solo in the “Stars on Ice” tours and eventually married and had a baby girl with another fellow skater. She landed several endorsement deals, launched her own fragrance line, and published two books, one of them in memory of her late husband. She says her greatest joy is the time she spends in her kitchen cooking with her two daughters. I don’t know her personally, but I bet if you were to ask her, she’d tell you that her life is pretty perfect, despite all that happened.

The single thought on my mind as I drove home to Alan that day was that my blessings had officially run out. I had somehow drained my lifetime’s allotment of happiness in a mere 43 years – now it would be all about hardship and disease. But in truth, Worst Day Ever has only served as a giant magnifier for the abundance of blessings still being bestowed. In the days that followed, Alan got an offer for an awesome job right here in Orlando in which he continues to thrive. After more tests and scans, we learned my lymphoma is low-grade, I’m not going to die and I am probably not even going to lose my hair when and if chemo is required. Sure, I still have some “poor me” days, but they always seem to get upstaged by the unavoidable positives; my creative and hilarious husband who diligently keeps up this amazing blog, my friends and family who’s collective prayer power could crumble walls, and a loving Almighty Father who is in complete control. Now if I could just win big on the penny slots…

So, sorry Worst Day Ever, you have no power here…..

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Very Brady Monday Night

Dear Brady Quinn (recently-named starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns):

First and foremost, let me just say, congratulations on the dreaminess. Seriously, well done!! Question: do you go to bed every night and say a prayer of thanks to God above for making you so adorable? Do you? Well, no worries, I do it FOR you!

Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Joan, the girl who was sitting just a few rows back from where you were standing on the sidelines at the Bengals vs. Browns game back in October. I'm the girl who yelled "We love you, Brady!!" at the top of her lungs. Remember? What am I saying? Of COURSE you remember! I mean, you probably don't hear that screamed from the stands very often, being a professional athlete with a hot body, dreamy face and all. Girls are probably very silent and nonplussed when you're around. Well, I'm the one who yelled that one time! I know you heard me, too, because although you didn't turn around, you gave me a friendly, acknowledging wave over your head. I giggled like a thirteen year old school girl for the rest of the game!

Actually, the guys in my Browns Backers group make fun of the way I get a little "squeal-ly" when you appear onscreen during the games. My fat, beer-swilling fellow fans roll their eyes at me and say, "You know, Joan, I hate to tell you this, but Brady Quinn is GAY!!" I tell them that, being a member of the musical theater community for several years, NO ONE has better "gay-dar" than ME, and that Brady Quinn definitely does not "play for the pink team." I remind them, however, that I am a middle-aged, MARRIED woman who is ridiculously and completely in love with her husband. Sorry to tell you, but the chances of you and I "hooking-up" are nonexistent. So, I really don't have any interest at all in your partner/gender preference. I just really, really enjoy the view. My husband is actually just fine with this, as he enjoys the viewing pleasure that Hillary Swank provides (he LOVED her in Million Dollar Baby!), and since there is no "hooking-up danger" there as well, we've decided it's all mutually acceptable!

But your dreaminess is not what prompted me to write this to you today (But, seriously, for the last time: Well done!!). I'm writing to thank you for being the classiest man in football right now, even though the press will never acknowledge it.

It started when you were the star quarterback for Notre Dame College. You were a talented, smart player, and everyone was predicting you'd be among the first picked in the upcoming NFL draft. The media threw a bunch of microphones in your face and asked, "Which team would you most like to play for?" You never hesitated, you said you'd love more than anything to play for your home town of Cleveland, because you grew up a Browns fan and always dreamed of wearing that plain orange helmet someday. We loved you immediately.

Now, as you know, the Browns were (and still are) a pretty rotten team. Most high draft picks in the past (ex: John Elway) made no secret of the fact that they very much wanted to AVOID playing for Cleveland. You said it would be a dream come true. At a time when Cleveland Cavaliers basketball star, Lebron James, also a Cleveland-area native, was wearing Yankee caps to Indians games and tossing footballs with players of Browns' OPPONENTS before games, you said, "I want to bring a championship to Cleveland. I know how long those fans have been waiting, I'm ONE of them!" Sigh.

But your classiness was put to an extreme test this year. You passed with flying colors. Even though Browns' starter Derek Anderson proved to be an abysmal quarterback last year, the new coach, Eric Mangini, insisted on creating a "quarterback controversy" during the entire pre-season THIS year. "Mangenious" refused to name the 2009 starting quarterback until just days before the regular season began. This meant you got exactly HALF the practice time with your starters as every other quarterback in the league, because you were splitting it with Derek. Did you complain? Not once. Your answer to all the media prodding on the issue was always the same, "I just need to focus on doing my best out there. I'm working really hard to perform to the best of my ability." Nice. I can't even imagine what the long delay of naming a starter did to your mental psyche. It had to be pretty brutal to know deep down your coach didn't have much confidence in your ability, otherwise he would've named you far sooner. You responded by working harder.

And let's face it, you had a pretty rough start. Your timing was off and you didn't have a great, explosive beginning, but you never stopped working. We fans believed you'd get it eventually. But you didn't get the chance to improve, because Coach Mangini benched you half-way through the third game of the season and named Derek "Anderception" the new starter. You had every right to be royally ticked-off, you never let it show.

Once again, the media stuck those mikes in your face. Your response? "I'm disappointed. I know I can be better. I have to work harder." I know first hand how well you behaved after being benched. I was in the stands for the next game (that's when I yelled to you, remember?). I watched you all through the pre-game work-out and stretching (by the way: HECK of an extension with the stretching! I was a dancer for YEARS and couldn't get my leg that far over my head. Nice! But, I digress...). Your rapport with your teammates on the sidelines was clearly genuine. You slapped backs, shook hands, and were completely involved in the game, no "diva-sulking" on the bench for you!

The worst part was, Derek continued to perform horrifically as quarterback. His passer-rating was the worst in Cleveland Browns history. He threw several interceptions every game, fumbled snaps, and turned us into the laughing stock of our division. Yet, when Coach Mangini was questioned, "WHY in the world are you STILL going to start Derek this week instead of Brady?" his response was, "I still think Derek gives us the best chance to win." Ouch! How PAINFUL was that for you to hear? Your response? "I'm just going to do my best to be ready to play if Coach needs me." Wow.

So Brady, although you've been physically and mentally abused by this team for which you grew-up cheering, I want to be sure and say "thank you," before you finally (FINALLY!!) get to start the game this Monday night. Thank you for never throwing your hands up in disgust at being handled so ineptly. Thank you for refusing to give up, and for never walking away from this belligerent coach, even though it's exactly what he deserved. I know you probably did it all for personal reasons, be we Browns fans would like to think you also did it for us, for our city that, frankly, just couldn't bear the heartbreak of losing someone who's been such a champion for us.

It's going to be a tough game this Monday night. You're going up against Satan's (aka: Art Modell's) team, the franchise owned by the man who broke our hearts when he moved the Browns out of Cleveland back in '96. This team, though evil, is skilled, and their defense is pretty brutal. You've got the supreme disadvantage of being asked to play on a floundering team led by a clueless coach, while the whole nation watches on prime time television. Believe me, we Browns fans aren't expecting miracles. But listen, whatever the score, know that we're proud of you. We're proud not necessarily of the way you've played, but of the way you've behaved. You are an awesome representative of the town we, like you, love immensely. Thanks for making us look so classy (and, of course, DREAMY!!) Go get 'em!

Thanks for reading!!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Knitted Courage

One of the really great perks of being married to a restaurant man is that he has many restaurant friends! There are two things that I've noticed as I've spent time with Alan's business colleagues: #1. They are all FANTASTIC cooks, and #2. They all throw TERRIFIC parties! If you are lucky enough someday to attend a party hosted by a restaurant manager, I guarantee you that there will be more than enough food, a delicious dessert will be served, and your glass will never, ever be empty! I thinks it's just impossible for any of them to shed their "work mode," and they instinctively grab your glass and head to the kitchen for a refill as soon as they see it's even close to approaching empty. Nice!

When we lived in Orlando and Alan was still working for Bennigan's Restaurants, no one loved to throw a party more than his boss, John. John was a happy, friendly man that was generous to a fault. He and his wife loved to have company stop by their beautiful home in Kissimmee where they'd fire up the grill, set up the volleyball net, and fill the fridge with Coors Light. There was one occasion where Alan had been a part of a training team that had just successfully opened a brand new Bennigan's in the Orlando area. To celebrate, John invited Alan and his team of trainers to his house for a full day of barbecuing and pool volleyball.

John's cute, petite wife met us at the door and escorted us to the back, where the grill was already going strong. "Did you bring your suit?" John asked me, spatula in hand. "Oh, no! I just though I'd watch from the sidelines!" I replied. John just shrugged, smiled, and handed me a beer. Truth is, there was NO WAY I was going to let Alan's co-workers see my horrific, fat body in a swimsuit! That was reserved for the privacy of my own backyard pool where no one I knew was around to gaze upon my pasty-white, tree-trunk thighs.

But the party was soon in full swing and all the young servers were immediately involved in an intense watery tournament. That is, all the boys were involved. We girls all sat daintily in our deck chairs, legs crossed, fanning ourselves, looking like some 1950's postcard. But then, SHE arrived. SHE was also a trainer, a plain girl with long brown hair and a sweet, happy, dimpled face. She was large, certainly, but not necessarily what you'd label "fat." She bounded onto the pool deck, yelled a greeting to everyone, then began to remove her shorts and t-shirt, revealing her swimsuit underneath. I remember watching as she stripped and feeling extremely embarrassed for her as I noticed this girl was wearing a two piece bathing suit! Her cellulite and saggy belly were in full view for all to see. She didn't seem to pick up on the pity I was throwing her way, however, because she was too busy getting a running start to perform the perfect cannonball into the water, much to everyone's delight. She was assigned a team and joined the volleyball match already in progress.

I couldn't take my eyes off her. While I sat on the sidelines, nervously pulling down on my skort, this girl was having the time of her life; dunking her opponents and leaping up to spike the ball. All the while her thunder thighs were happily, carelessly exposed for all to see. My pity was quickly replaced with envy.

I've always envied self-confidence. I must admit I've never had an over-abundance of it. In my theater classes at Syracuse, I was taught that confidence is vital, and that if I didn't posses it on a certain day, then the next best thing was to ACT like I had it. I applied the "acting" method at more than one audition. I'd pretend I was Julie Andrews and internally sing "I Have Confidence" until it was my turn in front of the audition panel, sometimes with great results. But I've always admired those that seemed to posses the tenacity outright. They made it look so easy.

I think my Achilles heel with the self-confidence issue lies in the fact that there is some chip buried deep in my brain that believes that unless I am thin, I am not worthy. When I've put on a few pounds and my jeans are fitting a little tight, that defective chip sounds an alarm, telling me that everyone can see how lazy and lacking in discipline I am. It convinces me that because of this flaw, no one could possibly think that I am talented or that anything I have to say is interesting. That is not to say that I hold this standard for anyone else. I have plus-sized friends that I find funny, attractive and vibrant, among other things. It's apparently just my own fat that the chip finds offensive. It sounds silly, I know, even to me, but there it is.

I think that's why I always have a different reaction when I see people dressed in what most would say is inappropriate. Having worked in a theme park for several years, I've seen more than my share of men and women on vacation that are simply "letting it all hang out," both figuratively and literally. I remember specifically walking across the park to work one day and seeing a couple, happy as can be, walking hand in hand outside one of the attractions. They were older, probably in their fifties, and he was wearing typical resort wear; khaki shorts and hawaiian shirt. There was nothing "typical" about what she wore, however; tiny, tiny denim cut-off shorts and a miniscule, royal blue-sequined, mid drift-revealing halter top. This would have been fine, I guess, had she not weighed more than 200 pounds. She was literally busting out of that outfit -- everywhere. My friend who was walking with me gasped, then tsk-ed in disgust, "WHY would she WEAR that?!!" she implored. I had a much different reaction. "Wow. I wonder what it's like to be THAT confident!" I wanted to rush up to her, give her a high-five and shout "Good for you!"

All through my life I've met fearless people who wear what they like, say how they feel, and do what they desire, not giving a flying leap about what others' opinions may be. Now, I know there are those that can take this too far and come off as uncaring and selfish, seeming to "give the finger" to the rest of the world. These individuals say or do hurtful things at the expense of others, stating as their only excuse, "I was just being ME!" But I know so many who have found that happy medium, where they have discovered that wonderful, celebrated "fit" that's all their own. It's not what society may deem as "acceptable," but it's right for THEM, so they continue on just the same.

I think there is hope for me, however, in only one respect: I wear Christmas sweaters. Yep. I own many, many of them! And not the tasteful, small, holly-embroidery-on-the-collar kind, either. My sweaters are bright, loud (some of them actually jingle!), and obnoxious. I LOVE THEM!! There was a tiny patch of time there, maybe in the late 80's, when Christmas sweaters were actually popular. Shortly thereafter, though, suddenly the mere THOUGHT of wearing one meant committing the hugest fashion faux pas on the planet. I had collected a few by then, and they made me really, really happy. I tried to obey the experts, however, and tucked them away in my closet when they were deemed "no longer fashionable." "You wouldn't want to make a spectacle of yourself or anything," my inner chip told me.

But then something clicked in me. I really loved wearing my snowman/reindeer/santa/candy cane sweaters. I loved wearing them to work, when I was out Christmas shopping, decorating the house, or getting my oil changed. I missed them! So out they came from the back of my closet, and then I bought more. A lot more! Matter of fact, I own enough Christmas sweaters now that I can wear one EVERY day of the entire season! And guess what? When I wear them, I feel special, talented, and that what I have to say is interesting!

My co-workers at Universal all became very familiar with my festive sweaters. Like most, they all seemed a little trepidatious and concerned by my appearance at first. But I'm pretty sure they warmed-up to them as the years progressed, and I like to believe that they actually looked forward to seeing them each holiday season. One thing was always a "given" each Christmas: they'd all show up at the annual Christmas party in cute, red, satiny camisole tops and rhinestone hair clips, I'd arrive in my classic pink and white "dogs-with-santa-hats" sweater, and a good time would be had by all!

I know what people must be saying to one another as I pass them in all my Christmas tree be-decked, knit glory at the mall. "Why would she WEAR that?" Here is my answer: "Because it makes me feel great when I wear it. But most of all, because I have the confidence not to care at all what YOU think!" Take THAT, stupid inner chip!

Maybe there's a cherished article of clothing in your closet that needs some airing out. I say, GO FOR IT!! Be like the dimpled girl who decided a spirited game of pool volleyball was more important than covering up a few fat rolls. Be like the two hundred pound cutie who throws on a pair of Daisy Dukes and states, "I'm beautiful, get over it!" Or, if you prefer, be like the middle-aged wife of a restaurant man who, every December, giddily throws a holly and poinsettia explosion over her head, whistles a few strains of "Jingle Bells," and confidently steps out into the world to spread some Christmas cheer!

Thanks for reading!