Guest Post on Women, Social Media, and Healthcare

Guest post by social media afficionado Katie Matlack up on the new site!

If you haven’t re-subscribed, please do so via the Feedburner box below the “About Me” blurb.

Thank you!


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New Post Over at the New Site!

For those of you who don’t know, this site has been face-lifted and can be found at Apparently, e-mail subscriptions to this blog didn’t transfer to the new blog. So if you want to continue getting e-mail notifications of posts (there’s a new post up today, in fact!), please visit the new site and input your e-mail info in the Feedburner button under the “About Me” blurb. Sorry for the hassle!!

Pauline xo

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Raising My Daughter Not to Make the Same Dumb Mistake I Made

My daughter Franny, who turns ten this month, has just started working as a Mother’s Helper one afternoon a week after school. She works for a SAHM who needs a couple hours of sanity. She folds laundry and sweeps. She plays with two-year-old Juniper, pushing her on the swing, dressing doll babies, having tea parties.

“I helped Juniper go to the bathroom,” Franny told me proudly. “I wiped her butt. Don’t worry, I washed my hands afterward.”

She must have noticed I was staring at her incredulously. But I wasn’t staring because of the butt-wiping admission. I was agog at the realization that my baby is now old enough to wipe someone else’s baby’s butt.

Franny makes $5 an hour. She works two hours a week, so by the end of one month, she’s earned forty bucks. Not bad for a girl who’s just turning ten.

Franny is a responsible, capable kid. She wakes herself up every  morning for school, putting on the outfit she laid on her chair the night before. She does her homework, usually without reminders, and asks me to sign off on her assignment book. She feeds the cats, and if they need medicine, she dispenses it. If you send her a letter, she will send you a reply right back, on a handmade card with flowers and hearts and multiple exclamation marks.

So I knew, as she was approaching the double digits, that she could handle a Mother’s Helper job. I asked around the neighborhood until I found someone willing to take a shot on a not-quite-ten-year-old.

I want Franny to learn the importance of being financially independent now, while she’s still a kid. I’ve used the occasion of her new job to talk to her about how women need to learn to make their own money so they won’t have to rely on anyone else. I tell her that she will feel good about herself this way.

What I’m saying, between the lines, is: don’t make the same dumb mistake I did.

Don’t expect Prince Charming to swoop you up in his gleaming Lexus and whoosh you off to a life that unrolls like a red carpet before you, a life where you get to stay at home and care for your children in your beautiful house in a grand neighborhood, picking up some freelance work and catching some mid-morning yoga classes in your leisure time. Maybe that life will work out. Maybe it won’t. And if it doesn’t, where will you be?

I don’t know why my mother didn’t instill self-reliance in me. She was a child of the Depression and worked full-time her entire adult life as a music teacher. When she wasn’t working, she cleaned the house, made the meals, and paid the bills. My dad was out of work for a few years, and had it not been for my mom, we would have been sleeping in our station wagon.

Mom didn’t ask me to do much of anything. Again, I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I was adopted and she didn’t feel entitled to make a mother’s demands. Maybe it was because she was exhausted, and a bit of a control freak, and it was easier to do everything herself instead of insist that others pitch in. Maybe it was because I was an anxious child, so she didn’t think I was capable of taking care of myself.

Whatever the reason, I grew up to believe I needed someone else to take care of me. So I married a man whom I expected to soar to great heights in his chosen career. A man whom I expected to provide emotional and financial security, the way my brother-in-law did for my sister, the way many of my friends’ husbands did for them.

But that rosy-hued fantasy didn’t work out so well.

Had I been used to taking care of myself, I would have landed on my feet much faster than I did post-divorce. I would have experienced less stress that I undoubtedly passed on to my children as I went back to graduate school and started over in a new career.

I don’t want Franny to depend on a man to take care of her. I especially don’t want her to depend on her dad. Prince’s money comes with strings, and if she gets used to the dole-outs, she will find herself cinched so tightly that she won’t be able to breathe. She will be told where to live, who to marry, where to vacation, how to decorate her house. She will be denied the opportunity to grow up and feel a sense of accomplishment for what she can do on her own.

Franny can already do a lot on her own, besides babysitting. She is flying cross-country by herself this summer to visit my sister. When I asked her if she wanted me to come with her, she gave me a resounding “NO!”

I am profoundly grateful to watch her emerging self-agency, but sad to experience the gradual pulling-away that she needs to do in order to grow up.

Twice in the past month she has declined the bedtime story-reading and snuggle, our nightly ritual since she was an infant sitting on my lap in the rocking chair, then in her bed when she got old enough to sleep in one.

So it came as a luscious surprise last weekend, when Atticus was out of town on a business trip, and she put her hands on my waist, gazed up at me with big mooey eyes and a grin and asked: “Mom, can I sleep in your bed tonight?”

We crawled under the white duvet, just us girls. We settled our backs into the pillows, and watched Harry Potter on TV until Franny decided she’d had enough, then turned off the light and fell instantly asleep.

I stayed awake for awhile, listening to her soft breathing, gently stroking her long auburn hair. I didn’t want to go to sleep, because I knew this might be the last time we ever slept in the same bed together. So I drank in the moment as long as I could, a blanket of serenity wrapping around me as I imagined my girl growing up and away from me, into a woman who won’t make the same dumb mistake her mother did.

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Does a Woman Really Need a $23 Undereye Concealer?

My favorite Beauty Supply Store is a ten-minute drive from my house, on a high-end, but Main-Street-y boulevard that cuts a swath through a pocket of Mediterranean, Tudor, and Craftsman mansions.

What with last year’s obscene legal fees and a house in which my husband and I are underwater, I have no business strolling this boulevard at all, never mind wandering into a store stocked with $50 votives and $65 eye serum.

But I can’t help it. I love it there. The salespeople have exotic accents and trip over themselves to help you find just the right curl enhancer. The owner, always in a crisp button-down and cuff links, calls you “dear.” The air smells like lavender and gingergrass and prosperity.

The thing is, I cannot get out of that store without spending a minimum of eighty dollars. And that’s on maybe two products. After getting a temporary high from the ambience, the moment I exit the store with my pink-and-white striped bag in hand, I am inevitably plunged into a pit of consumer’s guilt.

But I keep going back.

Two weeks ago, for instance, I went to get a new undereye concealer, as I was nearing the final dab from the product I had been using: a swanky concealer in a black tube, the brand name etched in stylish white letters. The perpetually perky salesgirl had told me that this was the creamiest, the bestiest concealer ever. That’s why it was worth $23, she said. It did what no other concealer could do.

Which is how I justified my intent to spend another $23 on a tiny tube of custard-colored paste.

Only this time, the Beauty Supply Store was out of my brand. The salesgirl checked two other brands — both similarly-priced and similarly-packaged, that had a comparable color — but those concealers were back-ordered as well.

The owner was very apologetic about the inconvience. “Come back in a week, dear. The orders should be in then.”

So I went back the next week. But the orders still weren’t in.

“You wear the most popular shade of concealer, dear,” said the owner.

I felt special. And then bereft. My old tube of concealer was scraped clean. This would mean I would have to brave the world with dark undereye circles. Unthinkable.

I stepped out onto the sidewalk, walked a few paces, and stopped in front of the Rite-Aid. Rite-Aid sold tons of cosmetics, I thought to myself. But they weren’t the creamiest or the bestiest.

They were, however, the cheapest.

So I went in. Under garish lighting, I pored over rows of concealers that were nowhere near as stylin’ as my old brand, but were cheap. I settled on one from Revlon that looked close to the swanky brand I had been wearing. And it was $7.99, one-third of the price I had paid for the concealer in the shop next door.

I walked to the cash register. The cashier did not call me “dear.” The scent of lavender was not in the air. But having saved myself $15, I felt elevated to a cloud of practicality, instead of lowered into a swamp of buyer’s remorse.

I’ve been wearing the $7.99 undereye concealer for a week now, and I honestly can’t say what the extra $15 bought me, other than the illusion of specialness. The cheap one does pretty much what the expensive one did.

Which is, not ever cover up my eye circles completely.

So I think I’m going to stick with my low-rent concealer. I’ll miss my favorite Beauty Supply Store, but I can always sniff lavender from a Trader Joe’s potted lavender plant. I have a man at home who calls me “honey,” which is actually a step up from “dear.” And with that extra $15 in my pocket, I am slightly more prosperous.

Now, if I can just kick my Anthropologie habit…

Where do you shop for cosmetics? Beauty Supply Stores or drug stores?

Do you believe high-end cosmetics are worth the price?

And how much do you pay for your concealer, anyway?

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Why Can’t My Ex-Husband Talk About Our Son’s Psychiatric Disorder?

The following is a piece I wrote for Good Men Project that ran yesterday. This essay was written for GMP’s Men and Mental Illness section. Isn’t it time to take the stigma out of mental illness?

I did not want to get amniocentesis, an invasive screening test used to detect birth defects in fetuses. Pregnant with my first child, I was under 35, the age at which women are thought to be at a markedly higher riskfor conceiving a child with chromosomal abnormalities.

But my then-husband, Prince, insisted. He came from a long line of overachievers who excelled in business, athletics, and social networking. His family put almost crippling pressure to succeed on all their children, but especially Prince, their only son.

We lay in bed one night as I was nearing the end of my first trimester. Prince was reading a magazine article about a family raising a child with Down’s Syndrome. He looked over at me, his jaw clenched, color draining from his face.

“I don’t think I could raise a kid that wasn’t perfect,” he said.

We argued over whether or not I should get the test. I was under the recommended screening age, and the procedure posed a risk of miscarriage. He insisted I get amniocentesis so we would know that the baby was “normal.”

“But we won’t know that,” I protested. “The baby could be born with a predisposition for something that doesn’t show up till much later. What if he’s a teenager and develops schizophrenia? We’d have to deal with it.”

“You have to get the test,” he said. “And if something’s wrong with the baby, you’d have to abort. I couldn’t handle a kid who’s messed up.”

I got the test. The chromosomes were normal. We learned we were having a boy. When he was born the obstetrician told us, “that’s one of the most gorgeous babies I’ve ever seen.”

*          *          *

Luca was gorgeous. He grew a mop of wavy golden hair. He had tawny skin and thick, dark eyelashes. As a toddler, he had a precocious way of engaging people, especially adults, who routinely asked me if he was a child actor.

Once I was in a make-your-own-ceramics store, holding Luca on my hip. I glanced up to find Paula Abdul gazing wistfully at my son. “If I have a baby,” she smiled at me, “I’d want him to look just like yours.”

One year after Prince and I lay in bed debating the risk of having an abnormal child, we lay in bed, night after night, basking in the narcissistic glow of having a son who garnered copious oohs and ahs. Luca was the unabashed favorite grandchild in Prince’s family and, as the only son of the only son, would be the only one to carry on the prominent family’s well-known surname.

Luca had “it,” an indefinable larger-than-life quality that took hold of any room he walked into. Everyone who met him agreed: this kid was going to be a star.

*          *          *

 Luca was six when the calls from school began. The calls to schedule meetings to discuss “incidents” and “concerns” about his disruptive, impulsive, non-compliant behavior. The calls came more frequently. We tried behavior charts. Time-outs. Rotating therapists. Medication.  A different school. Nothing worked.

Despite several different psychiatric diagnoses Luca received, and despite his being prescribed psychotropic medication, Prince refused to believe his son had anything that resembled mental illness. He blamed Luca’s troubles on me. On his school. On other people who didn’t treat him fairly.

Luca’s behavior problems erupted when Prince and I divorced. I hoped, as time went by and he adjusted to the separation that he would settle down. But as Luca careened towards adolescence, the problems got bigger. And scarier.

Drugs. School expulsion. Endless explosive outbursts. When the police came to my house for the second time, I realized I couldn’t keep Luca safe anymore. So I sent him to live with his dad, who maintained that Luca was “perfect” with him.

We couldn’t agree on how to help Luca, an impasse that triggered a horrific custody battle. Running out of money, and unable to tolerate the psychological warfare any longer, I gave Prince essentially full custody of Luca. For years, he had been telling me he could fix Luca. I knew that he couldn’t, but I also knew I had to let him try.

Just one year later, Prince sent Luca – now 14 — to wilderness camp, then to an out-of-state therapeutic boarding school where he’s resided since September. Because Prince told me virtually nothing about what went on in his house, I didn’t know the extent of Luca’s behaviors until I read the results of the psychological evaluation administered to him at wilderness camp.

It was clear, from reading Prince’s interview in the psych eval, that he recognized the severity of Luca’s problems. But he was still blaming the problems on others. In essence, what he was saying was: if his mother had done a better job of raising him, if he had been in the right school, if those other kids hadn’t gotten him in trouble, my son would be fine.

*          *          *

My daughter Franny, almost ten, is the opposite of her brother – easy-going, resilient, compliant. She has the same set of parents as her brother yet completely different brain chemistry. Prince and I don’t deserve credit for her sunny personality anymore than we deserve blame for Luca’s genetic loading.

So why, in the 21st century, do people still equate mental illness with weakness? And why do Alpha-Men such as my ex-husband have a hard time talking about it?

When Luca was ten, he received a diagnosis (which has since been discarded) of pediatric bipolar disorder. When the psychiatrist uttered those three words, I felt not horror, but relief. Finally we had a name for the problem, and therefore a treatment plan. Finally we had an explanation for years of unexplained behavior. Finally I understood what was going on.

Prince denied the diagnosis, and all the diagnoses that have come since — except for ADHD, a more palatable disorder that has come to be almost synonymous with boyhood. In the psychological evaluation, Luca was quoted as saying that his dad refused to tell him the real reason why he was on serious psychotropic medication, stating only that it would help him focus in school. And he was understandably pissed about being lied to.

What is the effect of minimizing, or denying, Luca’s mental health issues? What meaning does my son make of his dad’s cover-up, which eventually got uncovered? That mental illness is so shameful we need to lie about it? That having faulty brain chemistry defines a person totally instead of comprising just one part of him?

The other day, Franny told me she worried about her brother at boarding school. “He just has ADHD, Mom, and the other kids have much worse problems. He doesn’t belong there.” I told her Luca did not “just have ADHD” and in fact, might not have it at all. I reminded her of the ways he was acting before he left for wilderness camp, of the behaviors that scared her so much she hid in her closet.

I don’t want her to grow up believing that her brother’s symptoms were just a phase, and that symptoms suggestive of a psychiatric disorder should be swept under the rug. I don’t want her to grow up believing that if you love someone, you enable his troubling behavior.

Most psychiatric disorders can be managed effectively, especially when psychosis is not involved. Depression, mood disorders, OCD, Anxiety –these conditions do not by default doom people to wasted lives. But blaming, minimizing, sticking one’s head in the sand – these are not effective problem-solving strategies and are much more likely to hurt a person’s chance for success.

Why do we believe that a man is less a man if he has depression? Those men who are transparent about their struggles with mental illness – men like Mike Wallace, Ted Turner, William Styron, Art Buchwald – seem, to me, more comfortable in their manhood than someone concealing his condition.

Clearly, the struggles of these uber-successful men didn’t stop them from being high achievers. The fear that a psychiatric condition will prevent someone from being successful is, I believe, at the heart of my ex-husband’s refusal to acknowledge our son’s problem.

No one should feel shame about mental illness in the family– not the person with the diagnosis, nor those related to that person. Everyone touched by mental illness needs to be able to name the problem and feel safe enough to talk about it.

Maybe we need to come up with a new name for mental illness, something more fitting, such as psychiatric disorder. How archaic are terms like “mental ward” and “mental institution” that conjure up gothic images of catatonic lobotomized patients or deranged zombies writhing on the floor? “Mental illness” implies that someone has low cognitive functioning, or is homicidal, which is generally not the case.

I hope some day our entire family can talk openly about Luca’s psychiatric disorder, a diagnosis that is constantly changing and may not crystallize until he’s in adulthood. I hope that Luca will grow up to believe that whatever his condition is called, it is just one aspect of his Luca-ness, like his mechanical ability or predilection for exotic food.

What I hope, most of all, is that he feels he is loved, and worthy of love, no matter what.

I felt my own discomfort about the term “mental illness” while writing this piece. As I mentioned, it sounds to me like a dated, gothic term. I like the term “psychiatric disorder.” Anyone have any other ideas?

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Pauline Wants YOU!

Some very nice person – I have no idea who – nominated me for The Top 25 Moms with Blended Families blog contest. I don’t know exactly what this means. I don’t think, for instance, that if you win President Obama invites you to a White House Dinner, or millions of dollars wind up in your Paypal account, but the contest sponsor – The Circle of Moms – promotes your blog all over the place.

The contest is over on March 28th. The 25 bloggers who have received the most votes win. People are allowed and encouraged to vote for their favorite blog everyday. And while I certainly don’t expect anyone to do that, I would be really tickled if you would click here and vote for me, Pauline! Once you’re on the page, scroll down until you find me and click on the “Vote” button.

Thank you, from the bottom of my bloggy heart.

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Should Maria Get Back with Arnold?


If you don’t know that Arnold Schwarzenegger,Terminator and former California governor, fathered a child with the live-in maid who had been cleaning the mansion he shared with Maria Shriver and their four children, prompting Maria to hire a kick-ass attorney and slam Arnold’s sorry ass with divorce papers, you have been living under a rock.

But if you haven’t been reading HuffPo Divorce, or various gossip news sources, you may not be aware that the couple reportedly is attending couples therapy, begging two questions:

Are they going to get back together?


Should Maria take Arnold back?

Before I explore these questions, I must digress.

When I was nine, my parents took professional sabbaticals and we lived in Mexico for six months. It was a tiny town high in the mountains, almost three hours south of Mexico City. The town was known as the silver capital of Mexico. Silver shops lined the town’s hub, the Zocalo. The centerpiece of the Zocalo was the Catholic church, an enormous structure covered in sparkling gold.

I often wondered why the cathedral couldn’t be melted down, and the gold turned into pesos that would help feed the town’s poor, many of whom could be found stumbling around the zocalo, or huddled barefoot on the cobblestone path leading down to the open-air Mercado, their calloused palms curled upward, begging for change.

There were rich people in the town, some of them foreigners. One of them was a businessman from Scarsdale who had acquired acres of land at the town’s peak.

The land featured several small villas, an Olympic-sized pool, a tennis court, and horse stables. The property had been turned into a summer camp attended mostly by wealthy American kids.

But it was vacant during the other seasons, so we rented the largest villa, at the edge of the property. American dollars went a long way back then, and we lived like kings that year.

My typical day involved the following: after a breakfast prepared by Josafina, the maid who worked on the property, I was homeschooled by my 19-year-old sister, who had taken a year off college to live with us. School time was over at noon, and I would spend the rest of the day reading Agatha Christie mysteries by the pool, riding horses, or hiking through the surrounding mountainside, imagining myself an international spy on a dangerous mission.

Because I had grown up in a moneyed northeastern town, painfully self-conscious of my family’s middle-class status, I relished playing the part of the wealthy “gringa,” because, compared to the majority of the townspeople, who housed eight, nine, ten children in tin-roofed shacks, we were loaded.

Besides the maid, the property came with a gardener and groundskeeper. The groundskeeper, Miguel, his wife, Ignacia, and their seven children lived in a small villa by the property’s entrance. Our maid, Josafina, 20ish, lived with her family outside the property, in a shack on a dusty, unpaved road.

You may be wondering about now what any of this has to do with Maria and Arnold. Bear with me. I’m getting there.

After my parents’ sabbatical was over, and we returned to the States, we continued to vacation at the villa every Christmas holiday. We stayed at a new hotel that some rich foreigner had built near the camp property, overlooking the winding mountain roads that stretched out below. Miguel was now managing the hotel. Josafina worked there, cleaning rooms.

My mother had taken Josafina under her wing and was worried about her “advancing age” – by then late 20s — and her single status. It was unusual for a native Mexicana to be unmarried at that age. Mom was concerned that Josafina was running out of time to find a husband and have children.

One Christmas vacation, we arrived for our usual 10-day stint – and a scandal. Josafina was several months pregnant. Unwed and pregnant. And the father of her child was Miguel, who, as you may recall, was married to Ignacia, with whom he had a passel of children. It was a small town, and everyone knew everyone’s business. So this was big talk.

Mom, who had been raised by Christian missionaries, and was so entrenched in rule-bound religion that she forbade me to take the name of the Lord in vain, struggled to reconcile her conviction that premarital sex was a sin with her love for Josafina, Miguel, and Miguel’s entire family.

I was a teenager at that point, and while I definitely didn’t share my mother’s puritanical views, I wondered why Ignacia hadn’t kicked Miguel to the curb. When we visited Ignacia, I studied her brown, lined face for hints of shame or despair. I scrutinized the kids, all seven of them, watching to see if they snubbed their philandering father.

But they all seemed fine. I remember watching Ignacia water the potted plants outside her house. Despite her husband’s secret philandering with the maid, the philandering that yielded a child-to-be, she radiated the same air of acceptance I had come to associate with her: acceptance of her station in life, that of a poor Mexican woman with limited options.

Perhaps the fact that she had moved up in the world and was no longer living with her entire family in a dingy one-bedroom, but was now the wife of a hotel a manger who got to reside in a clean, airy red-tiled adobe house overrode any sense of outrage she must have had.

Miguel did seem a bit embarrassed when faced by my mother, who couldn’t hide her profound disappointment at his behavior. I know my parents had furtive talks with Miguel and Ignacia, then Josafina, separately. I know my mother prayed about it. My father, who had actually had a stint as a Presbyterian minister, had a more pragamatic take on the situation, a take that I believe my mother ultimately accepted.

Despite the profound Catholicism that permeated the air of this tiny town, marital fidelity was frequently sidestepped. I learned this first-hand when I morphed from an awkward 13-year-old into a 16-year-old spicy enchilada, and was groped by one of the hotel waiters, a married man who had known me since I was three years old.

When I pushed him away, sputtering: “But you’re married – and Catholic!” , he shrugged and said, simply: “It’s accepted here that men have other women.”

“You mean your wife knows?” I sputtered again. “She wouldn’t be mad right now, if she saw what you were doing?”

He shrugged again, and lunged again. I pushed him away, thoroughly grossed out.

Josafina had her baby, a girl. Miguel took responsibility, providing for the child he had fathered with another woman. He and Ignacia stayed married. Their seven children accepted their stepsister as a part of the family.

Which brings me, finally, to the question: should Maria take Arnold back?

Despite the fact that they come from two different socioeconomic stratospheres, Maria and Ignacia have some things in common.

They’re both devout Catholics. They both have been raised in cultures – Mexico, and Kennedy-land — in which women tacitly acknowledge male sexual privilege. And they both have spent years married to the same man, with whom they have raised several children.

Even if Maria goes through with her divorce plans, she will never be rid of Arnold. Arnold will always be the father of her children. They will attend college graduations, weddings, and grandchildren’s baptisms together. Both mega-rich people, they undoubtedly have intricately drawn-up estate plans assigning zillions to their children, plans that they will just have to detangle should they go through with their divorce.

Given their circumstances, and given my own experience watching a very different, but similar couple stay together after the husband fathered a child with the maid, I have found myself thinking that Maria should stay with Arnold.

Maybe should is too strong a word. But, should she decide to stay with him, I would not think she’s making a mistake. I would not think she lacks self-esteem, or that her children will lose respect for her.

Would she be teaching her daughters that they should look the other way when their man “has other women”? Would she be teaching their sons to spread their seed with whatever household help tickles their libido?

Her children are Kennedys, for Chrissake. It is practically in their DNA, the notion that men cheat, and women put up with it. If the Schwarzenegger’s mother takes their father back, will it affect them more than the philandering-male Kennedy legacy has already affected them?

So with all that said, I say to Maria: whatever you decide, girlfriend, I support you.

What do you think? Should she take Arnold back, or let her pitbull of a divorce attorney loose on him?

Posted in Divorce, Custody, and Parental Alienation | Tagged , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Bonnie Bernstein’s Blogger Space

Bonnie Bernstein, while consuming large amounts of whatever chocolate fat-free ice cream is on sale, pens her stuff on Open Salon, where one can also find pieces published elsewhere in the lower left hand corner.  Bonnie is writing a book about a woman in her forties who makes wrong decisions in her search for love and a second baby.   Bonnie, a hyper city person living in the burbs, can be found on Facebook and on Twitter @BonnieB_Writer.  Follow her; she likes polite stalkers, especially those who bring good karma.  Check out her Blogger Space below.

Growing up an hour away via Eastern Airlines from Washington, D.C., living in New York City, I fantasized from my twin bed that I would be reporting political investigative pieces like Robert Redford did as he portrayed Bob Woodward in Watergate.  I’d be pecking away those two fingers on a typewriter in a newsroom breaking stories about some politician doing wrong like when Carl Bernstein and Redford, I mean Woodward, did as they collected information from Deep Throat in an underground garage.

But instead of emulating those Nixon days from the previous century that could possibly have given me a bad case of carpal tunnel syndrome and some regular dollars, today there is no swivel chair to pen my stories from.  I’m writing my book about a forty something making wrong decisions and essays about midlife screwy choices from the floor.

I am an unemployed, divorced Generation Joneser’ trying to make it, whatever “it” is, by spinning tales about my life.  I never intended to do this from blankets on the hard wood.  It just happened.  As jobs dried up for the supposedly overeducated, overqualified and, I hate to admit it, middle aged, I returned to who I once was, a storyteller.

Bonnie Bernstein's Blogger Space

I spin those memories in a barely lit room with hopes of getting the respect and pay check from a talent first spotted by my seventh grade English teacher, writing about myself.  Mr. G was impressed enough by my falling into a rose bush when I was nine months old tale to switch me into a “smarter” class, made up of kids who knew how to throw spit balls even faster.  That is, also, where I learned to develop a crush on a bad boy, which would teach me well through my supposed grown-up years as an adult.

After majoring in Queens College‘s campus newspaper, Phoenix, I got a stringer job for an out of town newspaper where I read the National Enquirer instead of watching a mob trial.  The presiding judge was not too pleased with how bored I could be concerning page one motions about some multiple murder scene.  The gangsters looked like such nice guys.

Disgusted, I got my Mrs. Degree and settled into married life with a baby, a dog and a white picket fence, and, yes, the husband.  I worked political campaigns, public relations and, while doing volunteer school lunch duty, had a stint at Toys R Us.  Years later, I taught Jewish History to pre-bar and bat mitzvah kids.  And then, I began my new single suburban life as a tour guide at a military installation.

Now, jobless, every night when it gets dark outside and I can forget where I am, I layer the floor with quilts to spin those tales of what can happen to a person’s very essence.  After the blow-up bed burst like a woman going braless with double D‘s, for two years I could not afford to replace it, the mattress.  During that time period I didn’t have the money for a couch.  So the dogs, four until recently when one died, and I would curl up on the floor.  The little netbook and the canines became my co-workers as I started to get page view gratification on different websites: Babble, Petside, Salon, Open Salon and Modern Love Rejects.  When several newspapers, including Newsday, printed my stuff, I realized I was on to something, a career that I left behind years ago with the National Enquirer I forgot in the court room.

The space heater kept going, warding off drafts from my uninsulated and illegal garage apartment and I began to confess some of my life of not being able to get Medicaid, food stamps or the man to love me back.  I overshared how it felt to be a non-person, as if I didn’t exist.  As the cliché goes, when life gives lemons make some lemonade and, in my situation, write.  I felt that I could at least own one thing in my world, my words.

Although because of a good friend, I now have a sofa bed, I feel the only way to write is the way I grew accustomed to, on the floor with a flashlight nearby, just in case there is a blackout.  Would I have ever thought back when I was breaking college newspaper stories about the ROTC, Ralph Nader and Meir Kahane, that I would be living this way?  I just see it as another story to tell in a chapter of my life.

Bonnie Bernstein

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Watching the Oscars with the Estranged Son of a Hollywood Legend

Last Sunday, while watching the Oscars, my 8-year-old stepson Kevin turned to my husband and asked if he had ever gone to the Academy Awards with Grandpa Frank.

“No, Sweetie” said Atticus. “Grandpa Frank didn’t like going himself. But the studio made him go the year one of his movies was nominated for Best Picture.”

My husband’s father was a Hollywood legend. His Horatio Alger career trajectory, not unheard of in the golden years of Tinseltown, is all but impossible today, when success generally requires attending an Ivy League, being related to the right people, having a yachtload of cash. Preferably all three.

“Frank” grew up in New York City, the son of a destitute immigrant who dropped out of 5th grade to become a milk truck driver. How could this happen, you ask? Frank’s father was tall and orphaned.

Propelled by the kind of ambition born out of poverty and desperation, Frank attended college on the GI bill, got a job in a network mailroom, and hustled his way up the entertainment ladder, directing TV at age twenty-three.

After winning an Emmy, Frank moved west and began helming movies. While still a young man, he directed a classic Hollywood film that won in three categories during that year’s Oscars. With the acclaim of that film, Frank was now in an elite circle of Hollywood Big Shots.

Frank made a movie every year for 15 years, so Atticus hardly remembers seeing him — except when he visited his father’s movie sets. On set, the dapper Frank — in his uniform of Brooks Brothers khakis and button-downs — was the essence of decorum, a true actor’s director who never yelled and whose calmness trickled down to his crew, who followed him from picture to picture.

"Frank" in his prime

Offset was another story. After Atticus’s parents divorced when he was nine, Frank instantly remarried and moved to an impeccably-appointed house in the hills of Bel Air. Atticus and his two siblings would visit for Sunday dinner and steel themselves as Frank sat in his armchair, downing cocktail after cocktail, verbally skewering each child for some transgression clear only to their father.

Frank particularly had it in for Atticus’s older brother, and would thwap him on his head if he came within thwapping distance. Frank’s new wife would disappear into the bedroom, leaving the kids alone with their drunk and raging father. Only Atticus’s sister was allowed to spend the night — Atticus and his brother were sent home to their mother.

Frank’s behavior wasn’t just abusive, it was also ironic. He was renowned in The Biz for his ability to elicit nuanced performances from child actors.

For reasons still unknown to Atticus, Frank barricaded his children from all of his relatives, which included his four brothers. Frank’s mother’s death drove a wedge between Frank and his brother “Michael,” then a struggling actor. The two didn’t speak for ten years, and Atticus remembers meeting his uncle only a few times.

When Frank was on his steep Hollywood ascent, Michael scrambled for bit parts and slept in his car. Frank never helped out, never offered him a bed to sleep in. Then, when Frank’s career was on its decline, Michael’s took off and he became a successful actor in film and TV.

Frank and his producing partner split up, amicably, and the latter went on to direct movies himself, making a slew of classic films in the 70s and 80s. Now solo, Frank had a difficult time finding good material and his movies were routinely panned.

The film business was changing, and Frank couldn’t seem to find his place. He despised small talk and nice-making. He responded contemptuously to journalists’ queries about his oeuvre, derisively referring to his role as being a “carpenter.”

Either unable or unwilling to work a room, Frank didn’t jive with the progressively younger studio executives. He made his last film in the early 90s, then retired with his wife to a small, woodsy town in the northeast, where he spent his remaining years reading and painting watercolors.

Atticus felt that despite Frank’s unrelenting ambition, he was tortured by his success. Whether it was his guilt from making it out of poverty when his parents didn’t, or his disdain for Hollywood schmooziness, he was never truly able to bask in the social station he had clawed his way into.

I met Frank only once, and it was the most uncomfortable dinner of my life. He wore a Brooks Brothers suit and a yellow bow tie, and instructed the waiter in great detail about the preparation of his omelette. He had stopped drinking by then, but he still had the air of someone who might rip you a new one at any moment. He asked Atticus and me a few questions, but seemed utterly disinterested in our answers.

Frank died a year after that dinner, from heart disease brought on from years of smoking and drinking. He left almost his entire estate to Atticus’s stepmother, with small allotments to Atticus, his siblings, and my younger stepson Kevin. (Frank had cut my older stepson Caleb out of his will, which is a long story worthy of a blog post of its own).

Years of buried resentment erupted and Atticus’s two siblings sued their stepmother, Elaine, over royalties from Frank’s movies. They lost and Elaine gave some of Frank’s possessions to Atticus, the choicest being his vintage Porsche. The Porsche was a money-guzzler and we sold it soon after receiving it in order to pay for part of my custody battle.

Not long ago, Elaine sent Atticus an old scrapbook filled with photos and memorabilia from Frank’s early years. Inside was a typed letter from Frank to his father, who lay dying in a hospital bed.

The letter was crafted in artful and tender prose. In it, Frank reminisced about mornings and evenings huddled over the breakfast table with his parents, drinking coffee and confiding his uncertainty about what to do with his life, his fear that he wouldn’t be successful. His words conveyed his parents’ devotion and support, their unwavering belief in his ability. He stressed his love for his father, and how he credited him with his success.

After reading the letter out loud, incredulously, the usually stoic Atticus looked up at me with red-rimmed eyes.

“I had no idea he was capable of this depth of emotion,” he said.

After a pause, he said what we were both wondering:

“If he grew up feeling this kind of love and support from his parents, why couldn’t he give that to us?”

When Frank and Elaine made their annual visit west, they would rent a suite at the Bel Air Hotel and have Atticus’s older son Caleb stay with them. Frank had taken an interest in Caleb, an interest he had never shown in Atticus, and for years sent his grandson meticulously rendered watercolors he turned into postcards.

During one visit, as Frank watched Atticus with his son, he turned to him and in a rare moment of reflection and vulnerability said:

“You are a wonderful father. I don’t know where you learned it.”

Atticus took Kevin up to bed before the Oscars were over. I watched the rest by myself, my mind more focussed on thoughts of Frank than on the final wins. I thought about Frank’s comment to Atticus, how Frank had grown up with a template for good parenting but was such a lousy parent himself. I thought about how Atticus grew up with a blueprint for abusive parenting, but became a father whose primary goal in life is to give his children the emotional security he never had.

Perhaps the difference was that Frank never really wanted children, but came of age in an era when people just had them because that was the thing to do. Perhaps Frank suffered from a clinical depression he was medicating with all that booze and vomited his feelings of self-loathing onto his children.

I believe we all do the best we can, although some people’s “best” sucks. But we all make our choices. And one of the choices I made when I met Atticus, was to marry this man who could demonstrate to my own children what being a real father looks like.

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