Talk Yourself Up

How do you “Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It”? (from the title of a recent book that I’ve got to start reading.)

Taking my middle school students on a walk to Central Park allows them to feel free and confident.
Taking my middle school students on a walk to Central Park allows them to feel free and confident.

My shyness around self-promotion started in Middle School. I was the first girl student president at Lincoln Junior High — a big and surprising achievement, given that I ran against a suave and popular boy.

After my election, during a parent-teacher conference, one of my teachers told my mother that I was getting a little too big for my britches ever since I won the election.

He should not have said that. She should not have told me. (Though, to her credit, she told me because she was very mad about his remark. “He had a lot of nerve telling you not be proud, Bethie!”)

So I cloaked myself in humility.

Years later, I was beyond thrilled when a funny story of mine appeared in Self magazine. I was on a sidewalk in Orange County, and bumped into a Pulitzer-prize winning friend of me. (Yes, I have amazing friends!) I wanted to share my brilliant little gem of a story but I couldn’t figure out how to broach the subject. Instead, I hugged the magazine to my chest, hoping he would notice the magazine and ask me about it. He didn’t.

On the sidewalk, we talked about kids, California, and my friend’s beautiful new play.

I have always felt more comfortable praising other people’s achievements than my own.

These subway performers got a ton of money, because they were good and they weren't afraid to show off their mad tumbling skills.
These subway performers got a ton of money, because they were good and they weren’t afraid to show off their mad tumbling skills.

Now that I’m starting my own business and continuing to get published, I have to rethink my humility habit. I have to let people know that I am awesome.

I can write, edit, and teach. (Hey, last month, I starred in one short comedy film and wrote and directed another for the Iron Mule Film Festival.)

I can no longer wait for people to notice the little gem that I’m hugging close to my chest.

Here are some things that help me hop on the self-promotion train:

  • Social media. People can’t see the way I cringe when I have to promote myself. I like the anonymity of the web.
  • B2B Networks. Friends who have small bizes, like me, can know, support and cheerlead one another.
  • Belief statement. Tony Bacigalupo, founder of new work city, was talking about this the other day. He’s into building community. It makes sense: you don’t have to be nervous about selling your goods or services if you really believe in them. Start with your belief. I believe making people into better writers makes them into better people.
  • Passion for the work. I love writing and leading workshops.
  • A Fact. Quoting one interesting fact or one happy customer somehow sets everyone at ease. It only takes one.

How do you talk yourself up? How do you toot your own horn without blowing it?

Gone Fishing

boys fishing

The boys were fishing and my creative writing students were supposed to be writing. It was a surprisingly gorgeous December Day, balmy.

We were discussing plot. This is tough to teach, especially for me. I like to meander in my writing. For guidance I consulted my trusty NaNoWriMo young writers’ curriculum guide. There, the teacher offered a suggestion to start the discussion of plot with a viewing of the final few minutes of an episode of SpongeBob Square Pants. Apparently, SpongeBob does plot well.

But instead of watching the cartoon, we went for our neighborhood walk to our secret spot in Central Park, a most beautiful little cul de sac where rock meets pond meets beauty.

This is where we met our young fisherman.

They waited.

They waited.

They hooked a big fish.

My eight Middle School writers stood in a circle around the two little fishers. They reeled a fish in. It was a mighty big carp.

I would not have known the kind of fish, but one of the boy’s babysitters told me.

“How old are the boys?”

“Eleven,” she said.

We watched the boys pose for camera phone photo shots with the fish. The fish seemed to be tiring.

One of my writers yelled, “Throw it back!”

“We will,” the boy said.

And he wrestled with the hook in the gaping mouth.

20121205-222243.jpg“I’ve never seen anyone fish before,” another of my writers said.

“Hurry! Throw it back!” the girl said.

“We will!” The boy was getting angry. The hook was not coming out of the downcast mouth.

Up to this point, students, you are witnessing, in literary parlance, “Rising Action.”

Now, we have reached the moment of “Climax.”

My creative writing kids yelled, “Throw it back!” I offered to help remove the hook. Thank God, the boys ignored me. But the boys could not ignore the yelling. And one boy, attempting to remove the hook from the carp’s mouth, looked up and spit out a load of curse words at my students, including a line about how my kids were making his life “a living hell.”

Then he went back to work, finally freeing the fish from the hook.

He set it free. The fish wagged itself back into the murky Central Park lake or pond.

The boy asked the nanny for a napkin to clean his dirty hands. She had none. I handed him a tissue from my pocket.

“Thank you,” he said, “And I’m sorry I called your kids so many names. I apologize.”

“It’s okay,” I said. (And I later told my kids that he’d apologized.)

Now, students, this part of my story is, “Falling Action.”

20121205-222414.jpgThe boy set to baiting another hook.

“He’s very polite,” I told the nanny.

“Yes, he has some anger issues, adopted from Russia and all, but he’s a good kid.”

“Yes,” I said. And I was thinking, he’s a good teacher too. He has taught me and the kids about rising action, climax, and falling action.

And he did it far better than even SpongeBob could.

Becoming a Stricter Parent

On one of the first days of Middle School, my twin daughters did not return home. It was 5 pm. Then 6 pm. My attitude moved from mildly worried to wildly apoplectic.

I walked over to their school, wondering if they’d stayed after drama class for some show in the auditorium. The police officer at the front desk (yes, NYC public schools have cops at the entrance) told me that all the school kids were gone from the building.

It started to rain. I walked down Amsterdam Avenue peering into the Jewish Community Center, wondering if they’d stopped in the café there.

I called home. My son told me they hadn’t come home yet. My phone rang. It was the pastor from Rutgers Church. I do not remember why he called.

But I blurted out, “My girls are missing. I can’t talk. I have to find them. I’m sure they’re fine.”

“Strict yet loving,” he told me. “As a parent, you must be strict yet loving.” I loved that. I especially loved how he said it – with his Czechoslavakian accent.

I have the loving part down. The strict part? Not so much.

My phone sang. My son reported that the girls had wandered into the apartment, unaware that they were late. The girls had stopped at Cosi’s café with a new girlfriend, keeping her company until her mother came to pick her up.

I got them on the phone, “Thank God you’re safe. But you are not to stop anywhere but home after school. For any reason.  Without asking me. Got that?” They agreed.  “Okay, I’m stopping in at the JCC for the support group. I need it. You kids make me crazy.”

I aim for “strict, yet loving,” yet actually deliver “make you feel guilty yet loving.”


This post is partly a response to my previous post — about how I feel sorry for my kids so I let them off the hook in terms of chores. And then I feel resentful and exhausted because no one but me does any damn housework. i.e., just yesterday, I worked all day, hosted the kids at the cafeteria for lunch, then came home and worked all night, including packing their stuff for today’s 7-hour train ride to the Adirondacks. (Fun! ) Then last night at 11 pm, they wanted to wrestle on my bed, where I had finally settled in for ten minutes of Me Time with a book.

“I’m sorry I’m done for the day, my friend,” I told my littlest darling. “You are too. Go to bed.”

I suck at setting boundaries.

That reminds me — I have gotten into some conversations after that post on making my kids do more housework. I know I have to make them work harder around the house. It is not easy for me. I have to try. I have to be strict yet loving.

The First Day of 6th

I dropped off the girls at Middle School at 8 am. Help, I have 3 children in Middle School! Yes, these are the years commonly known as the greatest years of a person’s life! My most vivid memory of Middle School was having to wear my brother’s hand-me-down red, white and blue Converse. So embarrassing. Every single day, total embarrassment.

I also remember making a movie, “Looking Back,” about the Depression with my homeroom. And, yes, I must mention Mr. Dennison’s counseling group where we rapped after school about our issues from a Transactional Analysis point of view. (Yes, I’ve always loved self-improvement.)

But this post wasn’t going to be about me. I was talking fondly about my girls going to Middle School. So yes, I got choked up dropping them off. (That’s about me, too! My feelings!) Especially verklempt when we were a block away and I saw they were holding hands!!! I love that!!!! (I love exclamation points too!!! They probably discourage exclamation points in Middle School!!!)

No time for sentimental good byes. The girls literally ran away from me once we hit the schoolyard. They gave me the bum’s rush. And I was left with the other bums (parents), empty-handed on the sidewalk. I said to myself, “It’s a good day to go back to church. To pray for all the teachers and students.” Besides, I had a little time to kill before work.

At the first church, “The New Pleasant Church,” on 81st, the gates were open, but the door was locked. It looked like it had been turned into a theater any way. I would’ve enjoyed going to the theater, had even that been open, but No.

So I went to the Holy Trinity Church on West 82nd. I sat by myself in there. Very vast and wide and dark. I noticed the statues of Mary. How can Mary look so calm all the time? Where do churches get that placid Mary? Where’s the Hysterical Mary? Where’s the Mary who has 3 kids in Middle School?

I asked Mary, “How do you do it? Look so calm all the time? What’s the secret?”

She didn’t say. She just smiled beatifically, the way she does. Not really helping me out. She could use some Transactional Analysis and learn, like I learned in Middle School, that it’s okay to express your feelings. “I’m Okay, You’re Okay.”

Mary stood there. Candles at her feet and a fan beside her.