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!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Golden Rule

Don't ask me why, but every morning as I run on the treadmill, I watch The Golden Girls on TV. That's right, The Golden Girls. The 1980's, shoulder pad-wearing, cheesecake-eating, wisecrack-spouting, "Thank-You-for-Being-a-Friend" Golden Girls! I have absolutely no idea why, but I love it! In addition to being written and acted superbly, I guess I just find tremendous comfort in viewing a group of older women (Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia) sitting around a kitchen table, discussing their troubles and devouring a caloric dessert! I'm able to run to it because The Hallmark Channel plays several episodes of the show every morning. But today, I got a late start due to some lingering chores I had to complete, so I was only able to catch the last of the daily Golden Girl morning-marathon. And since the remote was on the other side of the room, I decided to just stay on the Hallmark Channel and catch the "Made-For-TV" movie coming up next. Mistake. Big, big mistake.

The basic "plot" of this movie revolved around a small-town, southern, country girl that had left her home and family and moved to "The Big City Up North." Now, several years later, she was a successful, rich business woman, living in a high-rise apartment, wearing her hair in tight, slick buns. Her wardrobe consisted of tight-skirted, grey business suits accented with high-heeled black designer pumps. She climbed into the back of her waiting black limousine, simultaneously closing fifty-seven deals on her very complicated Blackberry cell phone. She was rich, successful, and (of course!) single and childless. Then her Blackberry rang with startling news, her father ("Daddy") had suddenly died, and she must return home to the life she abandoned all those years ago to attend his funeral.

Of course her family "back home" came running to greet her on their large wrap-around porch, pitcher of lemonade in hand. By the third scene in the movie, she has traded her patent-leather pumps and tight hair for cowboy boots and wide-brimmed hats. She reunited with her country-bumpkin high school sweetheart at the annual barn dance by scene twelve, and well, the rest is history.

As I watched this audio/visual nightmare, I suddenly realized I was running faster and harder, mostly because I was mad. I wasn't angered, however, by the fact that The Hallmark Channel had just greatly insulted my intelligence by broadcasting this swill. I was annoyed that the producers of this movie once again portrayed the simple, country folk of The South as much truer, real, down-home stock than those of the evil, crass, rude Northern city folk. All the townspeople in the country home segment wore blue jeans and gingham and were constantly embracing one another, begging their little girl to "come back where she belonged." The big, bad Northern, city folk were uptight, pinstripe-wearing blue-bloods who never smiled, worked incessantly, and spoke with accents resembling Miss Hathaway from The Beverly Hillbillies.

I know it was just a bad, mid-afternoon movie, but I see these images played over and over, and it's starting to really bug me. For example, I read a devotional each morning to kind of give my day a good jump start. The book contains writings from several different Christian authors, each one about a page long with a short story and thought for the day. One morning a few weeks ago, a female author wrote the day's entry, describing how proud she was of her Southern heritage. "Here we say 'please' and 'excuse me' and our words lack sharp corners," she wrote. Apparently up in the North, where I was raised, we're all a bunch of barbarians who eat with our hands, engage in daily shoving matches and can't possibly comprehend the meanings of these foreign words. "Please" and "Excuse me?" Huh. Never heard of 'em. Do they have something to do with eating with your elbows on the table or sucker-punching your fellow man? Because we Northerners are REALLY good at that!!

I'd like to set the record straight today, if I may. The South does not own the patent on politeness, or niceness, or for that matter, down-homeyness. We actually claim an abundance of all of those things up here in the North (Really!). Now, that's not to say that the South doesn't hold it's share of truly terrific people. My husband is one of them. And I can genuinely tell you that you can show up right now, unannounced, at ANY one of his relatives' homes in Alabama and they will greet you at the door, hug your neck and invite you in for coffee, biscuits and gravy. They are wonderfully generous and thoughtful and I can honestly tell you that I love each one of them fiercely.

But the same could also be said of my own aunts, who grew up in a tiny home in Maple Heights, Ohio, a stone's throw from downtown Cleveland. They were raised with no country hens or cows, no swimming hole or tractors housed nearby in large red barns. Their yard was the size of a postage stamp. They had the added disadvantage of growing up alongside my crabby, quick-tempered father. But if you showed-up on my Aunt Tessie's porch, she'd just as quickly invite you in, slap you on the back, and serve you coffee and her mother's famous nut bread. The same is true of my kind, loving friend Judie, who was born and raised in Syracuse, NY.

Shortly after I arrived in NYC all those years ago, I was cast in the chorus for a show in nearby New Jersey. One of my fellow dancers was a beautiful, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl from Georgia. I knew she was from Georgia not only because of her drawl, but also because she never stopped mentioning it. "Georgia, born and raised!" she'd proudly declare, flashing her perfect, pearly-white pageant smile. But as rehearsals progressed, we all began to witness her true personality emerging, one that wasn't so pretty. She was frequently catty, insulting her fellow cast mates when they were out of earshot, and she referred to the technicians and costumers as "The Help." She became increasingly annoyed when "The Help" couldn't seem to grasp that their primary job was to serve her. Ironically, it was the kind, soft-spoken "Jersey girl" who was her dresser that displayed true politeness. Even though she had every right to give "Miss Georgia" a good smack, she took it all in stride and assured us that rude people like her just weren't worth the trouble.

There are those that would say that this is a country/city issue when it comes to rudeness and friendliness, not a North/South thing. Again, I must disagree. I live in what can only be described as The Country. There are pigs, horses and cows all living right down the street from me, and the barns are far too numerous to count. These are definitely "Country Folk!" Yet, when I am at the grocery store, there are many days when I can't get a single person to return a smile, let alone a friendly "hello."

Conversely, as much as I really disliked living in NYC, it also has it's share of kind people. One of my fondest memories is of a cab ride I took there once. My ex-husband and I seldom took anything but the subway, and we frequently walked to save the one-dollar token money. Cab rides were an extravagance in which we seldom indulged. But I had an audition that day and had just spent about an hour or so on my hair and make-up when it began to pour outside. I decided to splurge on a cab to the audition site to preserve my "look." I boarded the taxi and was immediately greeted by the driver, a friendly older man with a Jamaican accent and kind eyes. I gave him the address, then sat back to mentally go-over my audition material. The driver introduced himself as "Sam" and asked where I was headed. I told him I had an audition. His eyes lit-up and he asked me about the role and the show, and how did I think I'd do? I told him there would be several very talented girls there, but I thought the part was something I could do, and was hoping for at least a call-back. He told me he thought I was beautiful and he had a very good feeling about my chances. "Trust me, I know these things," he said, pointing at his temple. "You're going to do GREAT in there today, I can tell!"

As he pulled-up to my stop, I payed the fare and thanked him for his kind words of encouragement. He handed me a card with the phone number of the cab company on it, saying, "Here. When you finish today, call this number and tell the dispatcher how you did in that audition, she'll relay the message to me. I want to know how it went!" He wished me luck and disappeared into traffic. Well, I DID get the call-back! When I arrived back at my apartment, I dug out that card and called the number. The dispatcher knew who I was immediately, because Sam had filled her in already. "He'll be so pleased you called. I'll be sure and give him the message. Congratulations!" That's those typical hard-core "city folk" for you -- making the day of a 23 year old actress. SO like them!

So, I guess my point today is this: We are who we are, regardless of the locations in which we were raised. Our rudeness or politeness isn't based on our latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates, but rather on the choices we make regarding how we're going to behave. Boaz, Alabama hospitality is every bit as warm and welcoming as the kind you get in Cleveland, Ohio, as far as I can tell. The unfriendly, frowning lady at the supermarket in York, PA can also be found in aisle three in Macon, Georgia.

And just like Dorothy (the New Yorker), Blanche (the Southerner), and Rose (The Country Mid-Westerner), maybe we can all just get along together and truly appreciate that in the long run, we're all pretty similar. This is what The Golden Girls have taught me. That, and the assurance that there's NOTHING that can't be solved when discussed at a kitchen table over a pot of coffee and a chocolate chip cheesecake!

Thanks for reading!!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Song of Joan

My parents have a story they love to tell involving the day I was born. I am the third of five children, the first of us four being girls, then the glorious, highly-coveted boy finally came along for the grand finale. My father made no secret of the fact that he wanted a boy. Ironically, he was also the only boy amongst four girls in HIS family, and he took very seriously his role in carrying-on the Donnelly name. So you can imagine my father's supreme disappointment when my mother provided him with one, then two girls. They were convinced, however, that I would certainly be the "third times a charm" baby, finally arriving as the male heir. The year was 1964, way before both sonograms and fathers in delivery rooms, so my Dad was sitting hopefully in the waiting area when the doctor appeared with the "gender news." Here's the part of the story that my parents love: Apparently when the doctor informed him that it was, indeed, another girl, the look on my father's face portrayed such horror and disappointment that the medical professional made the following offer: "Well, I could put her BACK, if you'd like." Hysterical, isn't it? I can't tell you how many times my parents would regale me with that story involving the dissatisfaction of my arrival which was so great, an offer was made to get rid of me. They'd laugh and laugh, wiping the tears from their eyes, mimicking "I can put her BACK!" over and over again until their sides ached and they just couldn't take it anymore. Good times.

They named me Joan, they told me, after a nun in our extended family. I've always wondered, though, if Dad was just covering his bases. His name is John (even though everybody calls him Jack, just like the Kennedys), and his plan once his beloved son was born was to name him John (or Jack), Jr. I personally think Dad was getting a little nervous around that time that a boy might not happen, so they named ME the closest they could get-- Joan. When we were kids, I distinctly remember going to a card store and seeing a display showing several names, followed by a short description of each one's meaning. For instance, the name Heather meant "pure," Shirley meant "lover of soap," or something like that. Guess what the description under MY name read? "Female version of John." Hmm. I was onto them. Well, as luck would have it, my father DID get his precious son (we called him "Little Jack" until he was well into his twenties, poor kid!), so the pressure was off. He was so adorable that we girls loved him completely, despite the fact that he was obviously Dad's favorite.

Don't get me wrong, Joan is a delightful title. I share it with some lovely celebrities: Rivers, Crawford and Jett, to name a few. But I've always mourned a little over the fact that my name is so plain. One syllable. That's it. There's not even a way to twist it into another version, like you can with Margaret/Maggie, Rebecca/Becky, or Abigail/Abbey/Gail. And don't even get me started with the name Elizabeth. Talk about options: Beth/Lisa/Eliza/Liz/Lizzie, the list goes on and on!! But Joan was Joan, that was pretty much it. "It's so unpoetic," I'd lament.

Then one day very early in my freshman year of college, a few of my classmates and I were sitting outside of the dance studio waiting for our instructor to arrive when we got into a discussion about our names. I told the group about my unmusical, plain name and how "nobody's ever written a song about Joan, it only rhymes with bone and phone." As we continued our conversation, I didn't notice that one of the guys in our group had pulled out a pad and pencil and had begun scribbling furiously. Soon, our dance teacher arrived and we all piled into the studio. On the way in, that same boy ripped the paper from his pad and handed it to me. There, with complete accompaniment, was written a full eight-bar song. The title? "Song for Joan (Of Which She Thinks None Has Been Written)." Can you imagine? Seriously, can you? I squealed with amazement and delight and thanked him profusely. He shrugged and continued into class. I took the paper home at Christmas break and Kathy played it on the piano for me. I still remember every word, here's how it went:

"Joan, my own,
I call you on the phone.
Joan, I moan, and groan, and moan, and groan.
When I look in your eyes
I'm in the Twilight Zone.
Joan, Joan, Joan."

I have really, really awesome friends, don't I? That boy's name was Wayne Barker, and because we'd only know each other a few weeks, I had no idea that he was a musical genius with a fantastic sense of humor. He became a terrific friend. I still have that piece of original composition paper with "Song for Joan" on it, I bet it's worth MILLIONS today!

But all awesome song lyrics aside, I wish my parents had chosen my middle name to be my first--Bernadette. Talk about musical! Mom said she had been reading-up on St. Bernadette when she was pregnant with me, and thought the name would be nice, but worried people would call me "Bernie," so she decided against it. Sooooooo???
I can think of a LOT of really COOL Bernies (KOSAR, for one!). Bernadette. Three whole syllables, can you imagine? Plus the story of Bernadette of Lourdes was so mysterious and romantic. Have you heard it? Bernadette was the poor, sickly farm girl who lived in 1850's France. She's famous (and a saint) because apparently she saw a vision, whom she called "The Lady," in a cave near her home. (The Catholics immediately assumed the appearing vision was that of The Virgin Mary). "The Lady" instructed Bernadette to dig a hole from which water eventually sprang, and the legend goes that millions were healed by the cleansing waters of that same spring. When I was still very young (and also still Catholic), I saw the movie "The Song of Bernadette" on TV starring the beautiful Jennifer Jones. Jennifer, as Bernadette, represented everything I wanted to be at that age: beautiful, soft-spoken, and capable of performing miracles. I watched it with a bit of ownership, feeling this movie was much more directly special for me than my sisters. I bore the name on the title, after all, even if it WAS only my middle name. (Seriously, nobody called HER "Saint Bernie," did they now?)

That being said, I'll never understand people with long, flowing names who shorten them. My sisters are a perfect example. My oldest sister's full first name is Kathleen, yet she always begins her phone messages to me the following way, "Hi Joan, It's Kath." My younger sister, Jennifer, goes by "Jen." I'm miffed. "Why would you willfully shorten your name?" I asked. "It's quicker to say," they answer with a shrug. My cousin's name is Diana, and she says it drives her crazy when everyone always calls her Diane, leaving off the "a" on the end. She said she's convinced it's because people are lazy and can't manage the effort it takes to speak all three syllables of her name. Wow, America, has it really come to this? Have we honestly become so lethargic that it's too much effort to pronounce an additional "a?" Say it ain't so!

I've actually found evidence to the contrary. Because even though I whine about the shortness and lack of musicality regarding my name, I still get a little peeved when someone gets it wrong. Here's an example:

I eat at Panera Bread Restaurant all the time. It's a wonderful, fast, healthy alternative to what I really want, which is a Big Mac. Anyway, when you place your order at Panera, they immediately ask you for your name, so that they can announce it over the intercom when your meal is ready. Because I know what will inevitably happen, I always respond exactly this way: "Joan. J-O-A-N. Joan." I watch them type-in the four letters. Then I wait for the inevitable announcement: "JOANNE, your order is ready." EVERY time!!! Now, Joanne is a lovely name. I have a dear friend named Joanne whom I love very much. But it's NOT MY NAME!! You may as well call-out "MARY," or "WANDA," these are also NOT my name! When I try to cheerfully correct them, "Actually, it's Joan." I always get this response: "Oh...Whatever." GEEEEEZ!

Here's the weird part, I'm pretty sure people have been calling me Joanne for my entire forty-five years, but it's only been recently that I started noticing it. Now that I've brought it to my own attention, the mispronunciation drives me CRAZY! Has that ever happened to you? Suddenly, once you're aware of a minor annoyance, it takes on a whole new, enormous, intolerable shape of it's own and you can't stand the thought of it one second more? Is it just me?

Doctor's offices are by far the very worst. A few years back, when we were trying unsuccessfully to diagnose my lymphoma, I was forced to see a different specialist at least once a week. This went on for several months, and I saw a LOT of doctors. Here's what happened in EVERY SINGLE one of their offices: Alan and I would be sitting in the crowded waiting room when the nurse would walk out holding my chart. She'd glance down and silently read my name, typed-out in plain, large, black letters. She'd raise her head and open her mouth to speak. "Don't say Joanne, Don't say Joanne," I'd internally chant, focusing all my energy at her tiny, tiny brain.

"JOANNE?" Sigh.
"It's Joan."

I really hate doctor's offices!!

So, I guess the moral of my long, narcissistic rant today is this: Embrace your name! Whether it's short and unmusical or twelve syllables long and the subject of several love songs, it's YOURS!!! Cherish it, own it, and most importantly, tirelessly correct all of those idiots out there until they get it RIGHT, for crying out loud!!

Thanks for reading!!!