Staying On Message

Over the last five years, I have worked as a videographer for filmmaker Jane Praeger of Ovid Inc. and Columbia University. This past summer, just a few days after my shoulder surgery, I assisted her at a pretty tony company, but because I was recovering, my son Hayden helped out — he, too, found Praeger’s coaching helpful and inspiring.

I love Praeger’s style because she asks a lot of questions and she’s not out to ‘catch’ you in your errors. She builds you up on what you already do well. She’s genuinely curious. And she never lectures. She’s good at getting people to simplify their message. When speakers “get in the weeds” with too much insider lingo, she steers them back to a direct and straightforward style of storytelling.

In any case, I’ve been thinking about Praeger and her mentoring style because today, as I’m catching up on my old newspapers, reading some old New York Times, I find that on October 4, Jane Praeger wrote a letter to the opinion page addressing women’s anger and presentation skills. Here is Jane’s wisdom:

To the Editor:

Rebecca Traister makes the point that women’s rage is often “transformed into something more palatable” — like tears.

In my 25 years as a communications coach, I’ve found that “performance anxiety” or “stage fright” — the most common reason women seek coaching — is often rage turned inward.

I made this discovery early in my career, when a very prominent woman and capable public speaker came for coaching because she had suddenly developed a speaking phobia. A few questions revealed that she actually had a lot of anger (rage, really) toward specific men in the audience — anger she felt she couldn’t directly express.

When I asked her if she might be “shaking with rage” instead of “shaking with fear,” she closed her eyes for a few moments, then, clearly trying to hold back tears, nodded her head. We talked about how she might better communicate her anger and her speaking phobia literally disappeared.

Since then, my advice to women (and men) whose fear or anxiety keeps them from making their voices heard is to first ask themselves: “Who in this audience am I angry at?” Then, “what is the alternative to turning that rage in on myself?”

Jane Praeger
New York
The writer teaches in the Women in Leadership program at Columbia Business School.

See what I mean about asking a good question? She is asking, it seems, What is the alternative to inward rage? How can you employ your anger to tell your story more creatively, forcefully, and, yes, professionally?

Working with Praeger is one of my several side hustles. My full-time job as a teacher comes first, but I am fortunate to have crafted a part-time work life that enriches my personal life, and honestly, gives me a bit more status that my teaching gig does. Look, I am fanatical about teaching well. And a big part of teaching is to be a life-long learner about learning. I’m never going to stop asking the big questions.


Use your rage to ask the big questions; this has got to be the way women advance.



Mastery of the Craft

Last night, I got into watercolor painting. I’m a rank amateur compared to my brother Brendan and my father, but I do love to push paint around paper and see if anything emerges. I try to get into the zone. I never have enough time. And the feeling I love best is when one effortless stroke yields something recognizable. And I have that rush of self-affirmation, “Wow, that’s good.” Or maybe, “I’m good.” I love  that dopamine hit of a feeling of mastery.

Yesterday we saw Edie Falco in the True, an off Broadway play about the politically savvy Polly Noonan, the Albany secretary and consultant of Mayor Erastus Corning II who served, unbelievably, for 41 years. Falco is one of my favorites. So are John Pankow and Michael McKean, also masters. It’s relaxing to go to the theater when you can trust the actors’ craft, sit back and let them do their thing. You don’t have to worry. It’s all going to be okay.

Corning may have peddled in corruption, but he knew his constituents well. And this seems to be what we’re missing nowadays in politics and in our neighborhoods — from the cop on the corner to the local Assembly person. Well, actually, I do know and love Linda Rosenthal, our Upper West Side assemblywoman. So never mind.

Our neighborhood is so beautiful in the fall. Just this afternoon on the way back from church, I spotted a rose at my neighbor’s down the block. It was still fragrant. (Is that global warming? We are in early October, after all). I snapped a picture of it and thought I might try to paint it. Making art, oddly, helps me overcome my despair about politics.

And theater about powerful women in politics, even as helpmates during a sexist era, uplifts me. There’s mastery there. Women in the arts, women in politics — we just can’t get enough.

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. – Pablo Picasso
I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint. – Frida Kahlo

I had an amazing advantage: a grandmother [Polly Noonan, the influential confidante of the mayor of Albany] who loved politics. She taught me not to listen to negative press or people. I grew up knowing politics was rough-and-tumble. – Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Senator

You might see also check out my brother Brendan’s art at

Creative Marriage

In writing class, when we read writers’ memoirs, we are all a bit like voyeurs. We like to see how others do it — how they get along with their partners.

It is always interesting, to me any way, to read about marriages. How much are the lovers’ lives, like vines, intertwined? Although I know the topic is tantalizing, my marriage is difficult for me to write about.

My daughter recently texted me this picture of me and Chris — I think it was from the premiere of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village.

jcj and mbc

(Pictures are always fun when people are not looking at the camera.)

Let’s face it, I have always been a bit secretly jealous of Chris’s amazing acting career. It’s true I have my own IMDb page and when one of my students discovered this, he has begun greeting me as Sabrina Von Savage, my character’s name in We Might Be Superheroes. Alas, I never achieved the same status as an actor that my husband did. Men have it easier, even in film. And yes, if you say, in his defense, he’s a greater actor than most (including me), I will have to agree.

But still. I am not without my achievements. I did and do achieve greatness through my writing and, hopefully, through my teaching. These successes, however, are harder to quantify.

So back to marriage, that equal partnership. As I wrote yesterday, there is no greatness or genius without a team or a partner behind you. I have been able to expand myself because of Chris. (And, no doubt, I have limited myself too.)

Chris’s Parkinson’s Disease has slowed his ability to move. Diagnosed about 15 years ago, he needs more physical support than ever. He uses a walker or walking stick to get around. It can be taxing on me physically. Does he need more emotional and psychological support too? Maybe. Executive function skills? Yes, these are slipping.

And me? Yes, I need more help, but I am not good at asking for it. Or expressing my vulnerability. This is the lesson from the Dr. Blasey Ford — you tell your truth and you will be glossed over, or worse, ridiculed by the president.

Times are tough for women and for caregivers, who, let’s face it, are mostly middle-aged women, a slice of the population so easily dismissed. But I refuse to be written off. I refuse. I am, after all, a proud feminist and I do believe that I have a professional contribution to make to the world — in addition to, but not limited by, my caregiving for and with my family members.

On Monday, we are going to Chris’s neurologist, who, too, is named Dr. Ford. I am compiling a list of questions for the good man. We always ask about the trajectory of the illness — i.e., ‘if he is at this point, when will he slide to the next low point?’ The docs are always cagey in their replies. They don’t have crystal balls. They refuse to give up on anyone.

Well guess what? Neither do I. I am a member of the creative resistance. Je refus.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. – Dylan Thomas

Creative Genius

Yesterday a friend mentioned, jokingly, that, once again, he was bypassed for the MacArthur genius grant. Yup. Me too.

But wait. Another person’s success can guide and catalyze you.

I have been a genius at parenting, teaching, writing. I have also been an utter and complete failure.

The problem with lone geniuses? In my opinion, there’s no such thing. All geniuses need a partner, a team, a band.

The Beatles created their great work when they competed against each other. On 60 Minutes last week, Paul McCartney talked about feeling competitive in his songwriting with John Lennon.

“If he’d have written [‘Strawberry Fields Forever’], I would write ‘Penny Lane’, you know, and it’s – he’s remembering his old area in Liverpool, so I’ll remember mine.”

So genius entails walking the streets of our childhood and young adulthood. One of my adult students has asked me to offer a writing workshop on the subject of sexual abuse and survival. So many of us have memories dredged to the surface during these Senate Supreme Court hearings.

I am figuring out how to offer this. Because writing about our vulnerabilities from a childhood place is a way into genius, but you have to feel safe.

How safe are you today? How vulnerable can you be in your art?

And another thing — Who among your friends is not a genius? I know that all of my friends are geniuses and worthy of reward.

What is genius?
What does genius have to do with creativity?

This I know: Intense emotions and pursuit of healing can lead to artistic acts of genius. So I will leave you with these two thoughts:

“Sometimes one of the great things [that] motivates a song is anguish.” -Sir Paul McCartney.

“The creative adult is the child who has survived.” – Julian Fleron

One of my personal heroes, Rev. William J. Barber II, a winner in this year’s 2018 MacArthur Genius awards.

SMART (and Creative) Goals

I turned in my professional goals for the upcoming academic year today. I’m good at setting goals. Our goals had to be SMART:


I love the start of a new school year, where we are always beginning. Like New Year’s resolutions. Usually, my resolutions consist of having nicely manicured nails and working out regularly.

The first year at this new teaching job, I made a ton of goals. And my mentor told me, basically, “Don’t overreach.” Wow! Really?! Okay, but I love the dramatic big goal. I followed her advice and set myself up to read an excellent book about teaching, The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. And I shadowed some brilliant teachers and colleagues. And that was all and it was enough.

This time around my professional goals are again fairly humble.

And in my personal goals, I aim to cultivate creativity. To live contentedly. To squelch the dramatic impulse. To remain calm in the face of adversity.

And to read. Let’s face it, there’s nothing I love more than reading a book in bed, on the couch, or on a picnic blanket. But I don’t do it because there are bills to pay and news to catch up on. Especially in this crazy day and age. I don’t want to miss a news alert or a pithy tweet.

I believe I have this desire to know every little thing because I grew up in a large family and married into a large family. And we were (and are?) always in each other’s business.

But today, I don’t have to know every emotional twist and turn of my siblings, my in-laws, or even, yes, my children.

This brings me to the hardest part of my current empty nest quandry. I flounder and flutter, wondering what are my kids up to. I don’t get to see their ever-changing emotions on a daily basis. And sometimes, I think I’m only hearing from them when things are challenging. Naturally, I worry.

I remind myself to be the captain of my own ship. Cultivate my own creative life. Detach.

So, although my SMART goals for the school year are modest , my life goals include.

1. Stay healthy.
2. Mind my own business.
3. Read a book.
4. Do my best.

And today, in the course of the day, I received a couple of messages from the universe. The first was from the Mass for Saint Francis. “Let me not seek so much to be understood as to understand.”

And then, I noticed this on a colleague’s desk: “Remember when you wanted what you currently have.”  Amen to gratitude.


Creative Conflict

First off, there are many reasons to be angry at this point in history. We realize we are mad as hell, feel distressed, because in this country, these United States of America, the status of women and children is important to us. So let’s start there: country-wide conflicts educate and inform us of who we are and what we value.

I find myself thinking about my values because last night I attended a seminar on Navigating Conflict in the Workplace for NYU alumni, led by Erik Yazdani.

Here were some strategies I learned and then I dive into greater detail below:
1. Get on the balcony to see the dance floor
2. Collapsing vs. Opening Up Your Thinking
3. Know Negotiation Theory
4. Use Systems Thinking
5. Identify Your Core Identities

1. You have to see the bigger picture. Make sure in your mind’s eye, in the film of your story, you shoot the establishing shot. This is tough for me. I am someone who does not always see the forest for the trees. As a writer I am exquisite at getting lost in the details. When I paint, I can get into the smallest of brush strokes. But composition? Setting the scene? Not so much.

2. Yazdani demonstrated the idea of collapse vs. opening up by showing two images — one of two people facing each other in a heated exchange. The other, two people on a park bench staring off together into the distance. This is a good image for me. As one of the world’s greatest bench sitters, I love the vista and relaxation of a moment on a park bench. I love to look outwards at a body of water towards the common good.

3. Negotiation theory is that idea of Getting to Yes. Ask open-ended questions. Find wiggle room. Find the places where there is more than one possible answer or way out. We discussed the example of the car salesperson who may not be able to negotiate on price but may be able to negotiate on the timing of the car payments.

4. Systems Thinking involves recognizing that there’s a whole back story to each of us. And we may have to compromise. What a radical concept — compromise. We are all coming to our own understandings and conclusions, given our own habits, styles, personal histories.

5. Core identities refers to our values. Conflict calls these into question. When I am in conflict, I definitely become sensitive, withdrawn and, yes, emotional. Because I care! But my heated emotions may trigger your defensiveness. And the goal is to NOT EVER trigger the other person’s defensiveness, because then, we have just begun a tug of war. We are not able to listen empathetically to one annother. We are only listening to win.

Conflict helps us identify our core identities, so we ask:

  • Am I competent?
  • Am I a good person?
  • Am I worthy of love?
  • Am I able to stand up for myself?

Other take-aways from last night’s session about difficult conversations include the advice to:
1. Start well — set a tone of curiosity rather than certainty. (Love this!)
2. Imagine you are speaking from the place of a third-party party mediator. I have said this to my kids: imagine you are your own lawyer. Yes, speak up for yourself, but do so factually, rationally. Be a self advocate. Be lawyerly. Self-advocacy is a tool that takes practice.

Yazdani recommends these books: Difficult Conversations and Leadership on the Line.

I also remind you of the amazing The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. For women and especially for us at this moment in history, this book explains why we cry when we are angry. Back when it came out, this book changed my life. I was able to see that there were some people to whom I could speak up to when I felt injured or hurt, but there were others for whom I could not (and should not) i.e., my boss or my teacher.

Lerner also taught strategies for not blaming someone else but using your “I” statements — like a broken record, if necessary. State your emotions — from the “I” point of view — again and again, if you are not heard the first time. Stay empathetic and thoughtful. (Yes, curious, too.)

I have also always loved the book Getting to Yes. When I led the middle school debate club at school, I wanted to use this text, but it is a little advanced for preteens. I love the idea that in conflict negotiation, all parties can win.

“Anger is a tool for change when it challenges us to become more of an expert on the self and less of an expert on others.” – Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships 

“People listen better if they feel that you have understood them. They tend to think that those who understand them are intelligent and sympathetic people whose own opinions may be worth listening to. So if you want the other side to appreciate your interests, begin by demonstrating that you appreciate theirs.” – Roger Fisher, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In

Central Park Bench
There must be a story behind every plaque on every Central Park bench.
Reservoir park bench
Near the reservoir you have flowers, tee shirts, shorts, coffee, and citibikes galore.

For more information from Erik Yazdani on Navigating Conflict, check out:

Integrity Has Grit

ImageIt’s easy to focus on the negative in this current climate. Like Elizabeth Gilbert said in yesterday’s Instagram post, “Before I start getting high off the crack pipe of outrage, I decided to do an integrity check on myself.”

Integrity. What a word. All Germanic and noble-sounding. Like a pillar, a Greek column to hold up our society.

Who has integrity? Who has grit? (The word ‘grit’ is actually found within the word integrity.) There is so much I’ve learned from educators like Angela Lee Duckworth who has proven that grit predicts success better than intelligence or talent. Creativity predicts success too.

I have worked with many colleagues who have integrity. They’ve not been perfect people. Lately, I’ve been wondering why the bond I had with my colleagues at the United Methodist Church was so strong. Was it that we had each other’s backs and we sought equity and inclusion? We did. We could never travel for work, representing only one race or age or gender. We had to be a diverse team. It was an unwritten mandate.

The most beautiful part of camping this summer with St. Paul and St. Andrew community was the final words from Pastor K. Karpen, who said, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘Jesus traveled with a ragtag group. It wasn’t the ‘best people,’ or the most winning team.'” It was tax collectors and women who washed feet and mothers and fishers of men.

Yesterday, Gilbert asked, “Do I preach love and courage and peace and inclusion, but then use my social media platforms to spew rage and fear and panic and condemnation?” Yes, for sure, I am high on anguish and muted on hope.

How can I not be? I freakin’ hate intolerance. I hate the idea that this country is penning up children who are simply seeking sanctuary. I hate white male privilege. I hate I hate I hate. I have a righteous indignation. How can I — in my desire to overthrow an unjust system — not become the thing I hate? In making the world better every day, spreading my radical love and courage and peace and inclusion, how do I not destroy myself?

On a practical level, I can push myself to show courage. To have grit and integrity — to use my passion and persevere. To forgive people who do not think like me or act like me or love as well as I do.

I have a fatal flaw of righteousness. I like to be the designated driver, the responsible one. And I look down on those who have lost their compassion, humanity, responsibility for the least of these, for women and children who have suffered and are suffering.

This dichotomy of this showing off-ing kind of humility was on display yesterday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the exhibit on Heavenly Bodies. The Catholic Church, notorious for covering up statues of nude bodies in the Vatican, inspired designers to glitter up the body-denial clothing. As if to say, ‘Yes, this nun’s frock is inelegant; yet in that black habit, there is a beauty and a style and hey, let’s throw some rhinestones on the bodice too.’

So let me dress up my humility — like fashion designers dressed up the spartan attire of holy men and women. It’s easy to hate the opposition as enemies. It’s too easy.

Like Versace’s excessive accessorizing, let’s take our self-denial to the nth degree. Let’s have integrity and courage by NOT hating. Add sparkles to the activism.

That after all is the secret to creativity. Throwing opposites together. I seek to love the intolerant. Love them into change — not hate them for their inelegant and false integrity. To be creative: take two opposites and make something new and better out of them.

Sometimes, I think, I’m going to be okay, but will this country? I  don’t know. Sadly, I’m actually not in charge of this varied and vast country.  I’m only in charge of a small piece of earth for a small piece of time. Myself. I can only take this one little mind and heart and body — and use my gifts of hope and courage and love. And while I’m at it, throw some glitter on my grit and integrity. Make integrity a pillar of society.

Integrity = Latin adjective integer, meaning whole or complete — having moral uprightness.

Grit = sand, gravel. Pluck, spirit, firmness of mind.