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I met a man the other day. We were waiting together for someone else, who was late. To pass the time, we started chatting, and this man told me that all of life basically boiled down to upward or downward spirals. I asked him what he meant by that, and he elaborated. 

"I was married twice", he said. "Both relationships ended badly. I figured out I was the common denominator. I was in a Downward Spiral. You know, to me everything was negative, wrong, ...a hassle. Everyone was out to take advantage of me or stab me in the back. I didn't trust anyone, and I felt like everything was more work than it should have been."

We all know someone like that: someone who is always complaining, someone who is always stressed. It gets to the point where you don't even want to call them and ask how they are, because the answer will exhaust you emotionally. 

The man continued, "So, I made a conscious decision to change, to become an Upward Spiral. At first it was really hard, training myself to always see the positive side of things, but I focused really hard on biting my tongue when I felt the negativity returning. I put a lot of effort into seeing the positive side of everything. 

"One day, I had a meeting in a nearby town. I grabbed my briefcase, hopped in my car, struggled through traffic to get there, had difficulty finding a good parking spot, and when I got there, the secretary told me that the person who I was meeting with had been called home for a family emergency. 

"The old, Downward Spiral me would have been livid, but the new Upward Spiral me simply asked the secretary to convey my condolences and requested that he call to reschedule. I walked outside to the parking lot and turned my face to the sun. I felt grateful for the beautiful day, the breeze, the chirping birds in the trees, the time away from routine and my desk."

Upward Spiral people not only see the positive around them but they lift others up with them. It takes a concerted effort to change your perspective, but a little patience and perseverance will do the trick!

Are you a Downward Spiral, or an Upward Spiral?


 
 
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When do you need an old friend? When life throws you a curve ball. When you stumble and fall. When things don't go as planned.  When someone close to you dies. When someone you trusted pulls the rug out from underneath you. When you didn't see it coming.

An old friend is someone who knew you when.  Someone who was there with you when you were growing up, who knows your family dynamic from experience, someone who you don't have to explain things to. 

Years pass, you move away, marry, maybe divorce, but that friend still knows you inside out, upside down and backward because of the things you shared together.

Perhaps you don't speak very often. Months, even years go by, but when you reconnect, it's like time stood still. Everything in-between can be caught up and put in its place, and you are back together like when you were in grade school. That connection made when you were young cannot be broken or even interrupted.

Old friends are rare. If you are lucky, you have one, rarely more. They are to be treasured, nurtured and appreciated from the bottom of your heart.  When life gives you lemons, they can help you make lemonade.  You can pour your heart out to them, tell them your deepest secret and they won't judge you, or betray your confidence.  You can let your guard down with them, without fear.  They accept you with all your deficiencies and warts and they still love you and support you. They stand by you, no matter what.

I am honored and lucky enough to have an Old Friend. I'm not going to name her, because she knows who she is and I hope she knows how much she means to me. I hope I can be as good a friend to her as she has been to me, through thick and thin.  Without her, this road in life would be so much more difficult. Thank you, my friend.

 
 
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YOLO is a pat phrase that people use for different occasions. It really hits close to home when you have a personal brush with death, or lose someone close to you. For a short time, it makes you want to savor each moment, live life more intensely, check things off your personal bucket list. After a while, life returns to the normal routine, and we forget to see the beauty in the details. We forget to stop and smell the flowers, as my mother admonished me to do often throughout my lifetime.

Years ago I nearly died. I came very close to leaving my underage children orphans in a South American country when I contracted Meningitis. I had respiratory failure and heart failure and the doctors at the Hospital para Enfermedades Infecciosas jump-started me twice. They told my then 9-year-old daughter that she had to be strong because it was likely that I would not make it through the night. Fortunately, they were wrong.

Ever since, I have lived life intensely, with a finite focus on every task I undertake; with a passion for new projects; with a determination to complete what I start; with a careful connection to the special people in my life. I taught myself not to lose that intensity, and it has become a part of me, of who I am.

When I was a teenager, I dreamed that whatever your spiritual belief, that is what would happen to you when you die. If you believe in reincarnation, you would be reincarnated. If you believe in heaven and hell, then depending on how you lived your life, you would go there. If you are agnostic or an atheist, then there is nothing after this life.

In my dream, you could create your own afterlife reality, just as you can create your own reality here and now, in the present time. Who says that any one religion is more valid that another? Who can lay claim to spiritual superiority? The religion with the most followers? The oldest religion? Atheism? I cannot answer that question.

What I can tell you is that what you do with your day today is important. Pay attention to the details, to human connections, to the laughter of your children as they run out the door to catch the school bus, to the aroma of baking bread as you walk past the bakery, to the tickle of a snowflake as it brushes your cheek. Pay attention to the people you love and always, always tell them you love them, every chance you get. You never know when it will be the last chance.

R.I.P. mom. Sunrise: June 12, 1921. Sunset: February 22, 2017.

 
 
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A couple nights ago, I turned off the TV because there was nothing on that was worth watching.  I picked up a book and was sitting quietly in my living room, sipping a nice Aglianico from Puglia, Italy, when all of a sudden I distinctly heard something walking upstairs in my attic.  I put the book down and tiptoed over to near the kitchen wall and heard it walking around, and then heard digging, scratching noises.  CREEPY!

Early the next morning I called Critter Control and they sent out Edward, the technician in my area to assess the problem.  He pulled down the attic stairwell and peeked up into the attic. A few moments later he came down and said, "Yep! You have Florida Roof Rats in your attic!" 

"How many?" I asked. 

"Oh, just a handful.  Not a colony.  A colony is 10 or more." 

"How many is a handful?" I asked.

"5 or 6" he said.

So, right then and there he put half a dozen traps up in my attic.  The next day he came back and he found the one shown here in this picture.  It's between 18 - 24 inches from whiskers to the tip of its tail.

"But where there's one, there's two," he reminded me with a smile.  He really likes his job. And he's good at it.

This afternoon I was working on my next book, sitting at my computer in the back of the house, when all of a sudden there was a veritable STAMPEDE above my head in the attic.  I could hear an entire herd of rats galumphing and frolicking overhead.  EEEK!

So, I called Edward, and he assured me he'd be by in the morning to see if we've caught any more. 

We'd BETTER!

Then he told me he would be sealing up the house with fiberglass cement the rats can't chew through.  Did you know that rats have teeth that never stop growing? That's why they chew so much. 

Critter Control will put metal grates over all the exhaust pipes on the roof and search for and seal any other openings.  It is Edward's educated opinion that they got into my house through a very, very slim opening where they chewed through the wood where the patio is attached to the house. "Their bones are flexible," he said.  

Eeeewwww. Too much information!

Edward is an interesting character.  When he was younger, he was ruggedly handsome and did modeling for some of the top designers of the day.  He rubbed elbows with many famous people.  Fast-forward to today, and Edward is a media-savvy Twitter fiend!  He has hundreds of thousands of followers!  He re-tweets the famous people's tweets, and then they follow him.  I need to take social media lessons from Edward!

The next day, Edward returned to find a "juvenile" version of the one pictured above. Slightly smaller, it also met its demise in my attic.  We waited several more days, but no more were found - thank goodness!  Thank you, Critter Control of Broward County!  Thank you, Edward!

 
 
PictureOur first meeting
Some people grow up with complete souls, but mine looked like Swiss cheese until I was 29.

You see, I didn’t ever have Aunt Sally’s red hair or Uncle Jim’s big nose.  I didn’t have stories about my grandparents’ parents immigrating to this country because I didn’t know who they were. 

I had nothing to tie me to this earth before I was born.  My family history started with me… anything that came before was an unknown, a mystery.  I could never fill out the family history part of those questionnaires at the doctor’s offices…. I would just put, “Not Applicable”.

I am an adoptee.

Back 30, or even 20 years ago that was something you would never admit to in public without expecting to hear snickers behind your back.  Being adopted was the equivalent to being illegitimate, born out of wedlock, an orphan, or worse, but it always came with a stigma attached to it.  Times have changed a lot.  Now it is not only common, it is nearly fashionable for women to have children without fathers or the benefit of marriage.  But it was very different back in the 1950’s and 60’s.

I remember the bedtime stories my mother used to tell me. I’m talking about my real mother… the one who raised me.  The one who gave me up for adoption is my birthmother.  My real mom would sit in the rocking chair with me in her lap and hug me as we rocked in the soft light of the nightlight.  I could see the Kit-Kat Clock with it’s diamond studded tail swishing back and forth as I listened to my mom tell me the story of how she waited for me, wanting so much for me to become a part of the family.  She and my dad had decorated the nursery, bought the crib and the swaddling clothes and were waiting until one day when the attorney called and said I had been born.  Five long days later they went to the hospital to pick me up and bring me home.  She always made sure I knew how very special I was.

There was another adopted child in my kindergarten class.  He was special like me.  His name was Johnny and he had been adopted by the owners of a large corporation, people with a lot of money.  He and I had a special bond... we understood about the holes in our being.

As we were growing up we could only stand silently by when our friends would talk about their ethnic heritage.  I remember looking in the mirror many times and trying to see if I could figure out which country my birthmother might have come from.  I didn’t look Greek like my friend Thalia, and I didn’t look German like Helga.  I imagined myself in a throng of people, seeking, always looking to see if there was someone who looked so much like me that I might recognize her.  Would I be able to recognize my birthmother in a crowd?

I spent more than 20 years wondering before finally deciding to search.  But where could I begin?  I didn’t know where to start, and I had no information to go on.  I was scared to ask my parents as I didn’t want to upset them, but finally, I had no choice.

Their reaction was worse than I could have imagined.  My mom got very offended and started yelling at me, calling me ungrateful.  My father walked out of the room in disgust.  I tried several more times to talk to them about it, to try to make them understand that I was not trying to replace them, I just felt an overwhelming need to know why I was given up, where I came from, what my roots were.

Finally, 3 years later, like throwing a bone to a hungry dog, a letter appeared in my mailbox one afternoon.  It had a handwritten note from my father on it that said, “Hope this puts an end to your wondering”.  It was a photocopy of a typed letter from the attorney who arranged my “gray market” adoption… a private arrangement between him and the doctor who represented my birthmother.  It was not overseen by any state agency and no social service folks did home visitations to make sure of the environment in which I was being placed.

The letter said only a few things about my birthparents.  It said my birthmother was 100% Polish, that she had left home upon the death of her mother, that she was Catholic, and was born on June 12th.  It went on to say my birthfather was Spanish and Irish – Black Irish – and had attended a couple of years of college (this part later turned out to be false).

Armed with that information I began my search in earnest.  I contacted a group in Chicago, where I was born, called “Truth Seekers in Adoption”.  They assigned me a helper who would pull local public records for a small fee. 

The first thing we looked for was all death records for my maternal grandmother:  a female, Catholic, Polish woman who would have died before I was born, using a range of about 2 years prior to me being conceived. Death records, and obituaries in particular, can give you a wealth of information regarding surviving kin.  We searched the Polish newspapers for obits and eventually narrowed it down to 3 possible people.  We then started tracing the surviving kin and in one of the cases the deceased was survived by her husband and 4 children: 3 girls and a boy.  Because men don't change their surname when they marry, we called the number listed for the son, but ended up contacting the son’s ex wife. I couldn't tell her the truth about  who I am or why I was looking, so under the ruse of having worked in a candy store with one of his sisters, I worked questions into casual conversation. I mentioned that I couldn’t recall which one of the sisters had the same birthday as me… June 12th (the date of birth of my birthmother listed in the letter from the attorney), and she blithely said, “Oh, that’s Jane”.  Without knowing it, she had just told me who my birthmother was.  She then proceeded to tell me that Jane lived in the outskirts of Chicago but was planning a vacation to Palm Desert, California in a month, and then she kindly provided me with Jane’s phone number. 
(I have changed my birthmother’s and birthbrother’s names to protect their privacy, but the pictures here are real.)

I was trembling so hard when I hung up that phone that I had to take deep breaths to get control again.  It took me two days to get up the nerve to call her. 

I had rehearsed what I would say:  "Is this Jane?" She would confirm that it was.  Then I would say, “Before I tell you why I’m calling, I want you to write down my name and phone number.”  That was in case she panicked or had someone near her who she didn’t want to know about me and she hung up …that way she could call me back later …of course, if she wanted to.  There was always the chance that she wouldn’t want to talk to me at all, and I tried as best I could to prepare myself for that possibility.

Once she had written down my name and number, and repeated them back to me, I would ask her if the date July 18th, 1960 meant anything to her.

At that point she would probably react one of two ways:  “Yes, is this who I think it is?” Or “…No, and I don’t want to continue this conversation.”  Either way I would have at least heard her voice.  Just in case, I set up a tape recorder so I could listen to it again, if that was all I got.

And so finally, I made that call.

“Hello.  Is this Jane?”

“Yes.  Is this a sales call?”

“No, it is not a sales call!  Before I tell you why I’m calling could you please write down my name and phone number?”

”Why?”

“Please, could you just do it and then I will tell you why.”

“OK…”

“Now that you have my name and number, does the date July 18th, 1960 mean anything to you?”

…I waited for one of the two reactions I had prepared myself for.  I held my breath… but she said, “Oh!  You must be my daughter!  I was just talking to my son, Mike about you the other day!”

I was in shock!  Her reaction was so cool and nonchalant!  And even better… I had a brother to boot!

A month later I flew out to Palm Desert to meet her and her husband.  Her husband had been wary …and doubtful that I was who I claimed to be.  He was ready to have me checked out from his end, just to be sure, but when I got off that plane, he told me that he no longer needed to do that because I looked exactly like Jane did when he had met her and she had been my age.

We sat up late every night I was there and she showed me old photos of her mother and father, her sisters and brother, my brother, and finally, for the first time in my life, I no longer had holes in my being.  I had roots, and a family history, and relatives that went back before I was born.  And you can see the family resemblance!  I have my mother’s nose, my father’s blue eyes and dark hair, and I no longer have a Swiss cheese soul.


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This is my birthbrother, the day we met.
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This is my birthmother and me, moments after meeting in 1985.
 
 
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As the year comes to an end, many of us go to the movies. Some are funny, others are action movies, others are Sci-Fi, ...there are blockbusters, and there are sleeper films – and then there are those that stay with your consciousness long after you leave the theater.

Collateral Beauty is a film about a man who was, until he lost his 6 year old daughter, a happy man, a creative man, a man who lived his life fully. He believed that Love, Time and Death connect every single thing on earth. “We long for Love, we wish we had more Time, and we fear Death.” he says in the opening scene.

Love was there when his daughter was born, when she grew up and he played with her, and in spite of the way he feels, love is there even after she dies. It is there in his grief and in his pain. But in his pain he has isolated himself. He lashes out and pushes others away, seeking solace in solitude, but he is haunted, driven and lonely.

Love says, “I am the reason for everything. If you can accept that then maybe you get to live again”.

But how do you find your way back?

  • Reach out.
  • When others approach you, open your arms and your heart.
  • Don't reject help, be grateful for it.
  • Say, “Thank you” instead of “You shouldn't have”.
  • When someone does something nice for you, just accept that they were thinking of you and feel the love. Return it double-fold.

“Just be sure to notice the collateral beauty. It is the profound connection to everything.”



 
 
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Who are you?
Are you a grandfather? A student? Are you alone?

What do you want?
A true friend? A fast ride? Something velvety sweet?  To snuggle with someone?

Where are you?
Are you toiling at work? Relaxing on the beach?  Dancing in the dark?

When will you ...
Say you love someone?  Buy that house and settle down?  Travel more?

Why don't you ...
Give up?  Run a marathon?  Call an old friend?  Answer these questions?

Tell me about yourself!

 
 
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The holidays at the end of the year bring out the best in people. We want to be generous in our giving, kind to others, and helpful.  Our thoughts are filled with family far away, buying gifts, meals shared, parties, and service.

But for some, the holidays are really tough. They might be alone, or far from loved ones. They might be serving overseas and unable to make it home to share this special time. Or they might be struggling with the aftermath of war, like the husband in The Grizzly Bear's Eyelash.

There are ways you can help, like donating money, but how can you be sure your hard-earned cash will get to those in need? Check out CharityNavigator.  They list thousands of charities and rate them by transparency, accountability and financial efficacy.  If you are looking to help a veteran, they have a list of different charities that help military personnel, wounded troops, their families and veterans.  You can find it HERE.

And you can buy a copy of The Grizzly Bear's Eyelash - 10% after costs goes to support people with PTSD.



 
 
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Stress, and how to deal with it, is one of the themes in “The Grizzly Bear’s Eyelash”.  The holidays are some of the most stressful times of the year.

Some things that cause stress during the holidays and spoil your holiday fun:
  • Tempting foods (weight gain).
  • The loneliness when it appears that everyone else is having fun, surrounded by loved ones.
  • Tight budget – and that feeling that we are obligated to give presents to others.
  • Decorating the house / office.
  • Getting ready to travel – the long lines, traffic, cost.
  • Parties – what to wear, what to say, meeting new people.
So, how can we deal with these situations?
  • Ah, the Christmas cookies! The Hot Buttered Rum! Calories that stick to your hips!  Stick to the veggie dip, instead of the brownies or chips. When drinking, stick to clear liquids to watch your waistline (they are lower in calories, except for Tonic Water, which has lots of sugar).
  • Second, put on a big smile. Get off the sofa and go see an old friend. It’s next to impossible to be stressed out when you are laughing.  Find the humor in each situation, tell silly jokes to your friends and co-workers, watch a funny movie on TV.
  • Get creative! You don’t have to spend a lot of money to give gifts. The best gifts are those that come from the heart. You can make cookies and wrap them in colored cellophane with a ribbon. You could whip up a batch of your home-made eggnog and share it.
  • Don’t fall for the idea that your holiday decorations must be bigger and better than everyone else’s. A simple wreath on the door sends a welcoming holiday message.
  • If you’re headed for the airport, take a huge dose of patience with you. Smile at strangers, even if they are scowling. You will eventually get there, and it’s up to you how you arrive: all stressed out, or relaxed and happy to be there.
  • At the holiday parties, don’t stand in a corner and hide! Walk up to people you haven’t met yet and introduce yourself. Smile!

Most of all, when you begin to feel stress coming on, stop and ask yourself, “Why am I letting this get to me?”  You can’t control what happens, but you CAN control how you react to it. Smile!

And now, it’s your turn! What stresses you out?  How do you deal with it? 
I want to know!


 
 
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Some tales come from experience, others from a muse, yet others belong to someone else and I’m just the messenger. Some of my stories are in English, others in Spanish or Italian.  For years I’ve worked as a professional translator and interpreter, as well as a language teacher. 

“The Grizzly Bear’s Eyelash” started as a speech I gave at my local Toastmasters club.  For those of you who don’t know what Toastmasters is, it is an international organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills.  You begin with the Basic Manual and when you finish the first ten speeches, you have an understanding and working knowledge of public speaking skills.  There are numerous advanced manuals that follow, each one focusing on honing different aspects of public speaking.

The speech I gave that day needed to be in a fable format, with a life-lesson and a moral. In preparation for the speech, I dug my children’s fables books out of a box in the garage and re-read my favorites.  Then, I sat down and created an outline for the story: the opening, the premise, the life-lesson, the moral and the ending.  I spent much of my childhood in the Rocky Mountains, surrounded by pine and aspen forests, high mountain lakes, and small towns, so the setting of my story takes place in a mountain village and the bear’s cave nearby. I flushed out the storyline, and practiced giving the speech in front of a mirror, while timing myself (in Toastmasters you learn to keep your speech within certain time limits).

It was the first time I received a standing ovation for a speech! Everyone loved it and many people suggested I take the speech and turn it into a book. I thanked them for their encouragement and went on with my life.

From time to time I would bump into someone who had heard that speech and they would invariably ask me when I was going to publish it. I was a little amazed at how the story stuck with them months and even years later.

Finally, a dear friend from Italy, Silvano Toso, pushed and pushed me to write it down in Italian and submit it to a national competition in Italy called 50 & Più.  I finally acquiesced, and to my surprise, it won 2nd place in the Prose category – Farfalla d’Argento (Silver prize)!

I was energized, so I translated it into English, and then submitted it to numerous publishing houses in hopes it would get picked up and published, but I didn’t even get the common courtesy of a rejection letter.  My energy fizzled out and my internationally acclaimed story sat on my proverbial back burner.

Then, in June of 2015, my younger sister was diagnosed with a very rare and aggressive form of cancer. 17 days later, she died, surrounded by her husband, her son and daughter-in-law, and me. It all happened so fast.  A few days after her death I made a promise to myself to not put off anything anymore.

I started researching self-publishing houses and eventually selected Lulu.com.  In November, 2015, I published my story! 

I live life a lot more intensely now.  I say “yes” to more opportunities, I share more time with friends, I go places by myself, explore new experiences, take more pictures, try new foods, ...because life really is, truly, very short.


About the Story: 

This story, originally published by Ms. Paolino in Italian and entitled, “La storia della ciglia dell’orso grizzly”
won the Silver Award (2nd place) in the XXIV National 50 & Più competition for Prose, held in the city of Levico Terme, Trentino, Italy, 2006.
It has also been awarded 4 out of 4 stars by the Online Bookclub!  Read the review here:  http://forums.onlinebookclub.org/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=40022