Friday, September 28, 2018

Embracing Failure

The news was not a day brightener: the publisher of my book Purr Therapy is terminating our contract, taking the book out of print and destroying any leftover copies. The reason, four years after publication, is quite simple: relentlessly poor sales, despite some excellent reviews. As of September 30, Purr Therapy will be no more.


This development wasn't a total surprise. Sales for the book have been dismal from the beginning. The numbers have been so devastating, in fact, that my literary agent wished that we could deny the existence of Purr Therapy altogether three years ago, when we were putting together the proposal for my most recent and considerably more successful book We Don't Talk Anymore. We agreed we wouldn't mention Purr Therapy specifically in the proposal. But we were still aware of the fact that prospective publishers, checking the Neilson sales numbers of my previous books, would certainly stumble on the embarrassing evidence.

Purr Therapy, in short, has been one of my biggest publishing failures.

It started with love -- for the two cats, Timmy and Marina, memorialized in its pages. And there was so much hope. Cat books are supposed to sell well. One with two touching and compelling cat stories should be irresistible to a vast audience of cat lovers. Except it wasn't. Despite my efforts at promotion, it didn't sell. Despite signings sponsored by the vet to whom the book was dedicated and the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Valencia, CA. it stayed stubbornly in the sales figures netherworld. It never earned back its tiny advance. It was certainly not a financial bonanza for me.

I've joked for some time that my most substantial benefit from Purr Therapy was my three-legged black cat Ollie, whom I adopted as a kitten from Catoberfest 2014, an annual event in Santa Clarita, CA, where I did book sales and signings for Purr Therapy shortly after its publication.

During a lull in the signings, I spotted him in a cage nearby:  a tiny sad-eyed, crippled black kitten. He was the poster cat for the unadoptable and for animal rescue and sanctuary donations. He was missing most of his right hind leg and had a huge hernia. He had been rescued from a trash can where he had been discarded soon after birth. He would need future surgeries and lots of tender loving care.


Ollie at Catoberfest 2014

He was irresistible.  I ended taking him back home with me to Arizona. Ollie did turn out to be the most expensive free cat ever-- needing three emergency surgeries within his first two months in residence with us. But how can one put a price on love?

When I heard the news this week about about the demise of Purr Therapy, I felt sad but it didn't wreck my day. Instead, I thought about it as a disappointment certainly, but also an opportunity to learn and to grow.

Failure can teach us a great deal. Our failures can keep us humble and open to new ways of thinking and doing. Our failures present an opportunity to admit and accept what isn't perfect in our lives.

And I value that perspective. Like many people, I tend to learn more from failure than from success.

When things are going well, it's too easy to get a bit smug and self-satisfied with success. With a failure comes self-examination. You ask yourself what went wrong, what you might have done better and how you might like to take a different path in the future.

Perhaps most important is this lesson: when you embrace a failure, you learn that you can fail and life goes on. The sun is still shining. There will be other opportunities and new adventures.

Embracing a failure can teach us not to fear less than perfect outcomes.

So many of us have been raised to be phobic about failure -- and that can hold us back. Fear of failure can keep us from trying as hard as we might to achieve a goal or dream. It can keep us from trying at all. It can also prevent our recognizing small steps that may fall short of a treasured goal, but represent progress along the way. When we fear failure, we not only avoid risks but also fail to give ourselves credit for incremental progress.

In many ways this is learned behavior, honed by parents who expected perfection and nothing less. I'll never forget my father thundering "An A-minus is NOT an A! You failed! You failed to be the best!" when I proudly brought home a report card with an "A-minus" in an advanced high school math class. Math had been my weakest subject my whole school career. Taking the risk of tackling four years of high school math -- with a small group of math-savvy classmates -- had been a huge challenge and an exercise in humility. No, I would never be the best student in that class. But that "A-minus" was hard won and I was thrilled -- until my father told me that it was not enough. That only perfection would do.

Many of us get such messages from parents or teachers or bosses or society in general. Women get messages about needing to look perfect, to be at a certain weight, in order to be worthwhile people.

But embracing perceived failures or one's own imperfections doesn't mean giving up. This isn't a matter of saying "Well, that's just the way I am. Take it or leave it!" or "That's the way I was raised!" or "I'll never be any good, so why try?" It means recognizing the value of taking risks and of celebrating steps along the way to a long term goal. It also means embracing the fact that you are valuable and lovable whether you achieve a goal or expectation or not, whatever your weight or physical imperfections, whatever your strengths and weaknesses or widely varying competencies happen to be.

As time goes on, I'm learning, more and more, to embrace my failures and imperfections. I'm learning to accept the parts of me that I'd rather not acknowledge as part of my whole. While my bright, most visible side is loving with an open heart and open mind, funny, pleasant and compassionate, my darker side can be depressive and self-centered, judgmental and stubborn.  I'm learning to embrace all of what lurks within. Accepting my imperfections doesn't mean that I don't want to be better. I do strive daily to be more loving and less self-involved, more accepting and less inclined to judge others. Sometimes the diverse parts of myself struggle mightily. But accepting my dark side, embracing the fool within, takes away the covert power of the darkness. It makes me more comfortable with the imperfect person I am and more at peace with all of life's vicissitudes.

Accepting one's own strengths and weaknesses, learning from failures instead of considering these evidence of one's own hopelessness and/or victimhood or of the world's cruelty and unfairness, makes one more likely to enjoy life along the way -- whatever the outcome of one's efforts, goals and dreams.

I wish that Purr Therapy had been a huge success. I did the best I could at the time. And writing that book was a pleasure. What more could I really ask? There are a myriad of reasons why it failed -- some failures by others involved, some failures that were all my own. I have come to accept and own all of these. I'm learning and growing and writing better now. And I think I'm wiser today than I was four or five years ago.

Besides, Purr Therapy wasn't a total bust. It brought a little crippled black kitten named Ollie into my life. And he has turned out to be amazingly healthy and able -- running like the wind, jumping with strength and expertise. His missing leg doesn't hold him back. He is fully engaged with life, the crowd favorite among his three fellow cats in residence. Ollie is one of the most affectionate, wonderful cats ever, spending hours purring, cuddled on my shoulder or curled in my lap. And I never lose sight of the fact that we would never have found each other -- but for Purr Therapy.


It's true that Purr Therapy didn't live up to my initial hopes and dreams. But it did bring so many positives to my life. There was the thrill of writing about animals so close to my heart, the extraordinary Timmy and Marina whom I loved so much and lost too soon; the pleasure of reconnecting with the wonderful Dr. Tracy McFarland in Santa Clarita, CA, the best vet ever, and then the unexpected, incredible joy of Ollie.

So I am blessed. And life goes on...with the sun shining brightly and each day a new adventure.

P.S. Just got the news that Dr. Tracy McFarland, The Cat Doctor of Santa Clarita, CA, has passed away this week from an aggressive cancer. She was, indeed, the best vet ever and a wonderful person I'll never forget. She gave me Timmy and Gus, the best cat duo ever, back in 1998 and her last gift to me was my precious Ollie, after we signed copies of Purr Therapy together at Catoberfest in California in 2014. Every time I hug Ollie, I'll think of Dr. Tracy with love!

Dr. Tracy McFarland and me at Catoberfest 2014


Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Challenge and Joy of Seeing Each Other Every, Every Minute

There is a poignant, memorable moment in Thorton Wilder's "Our Town",  when the recently deceased Emily is given a chance to relive her 12th birthday and travels back in spirit, unseen and unheard by her family. Instead of joy, there is anguish as she watches family members treating each other so casually, not really looking at each other, unaware of the toll that time would take.

Through tears, she pleads "Let's look at each other...It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at each other...all that was going on in life and we never noticed. Do human beings ever realize life while they live it -- every, every minute?"

This lesson resonated for me in a new way last week when I flew to Chicago to attend and participate in the Celebration of Life for my friend and former Northwestern classmate Maria Kulczycky.

Maria Kulczycky - 1945-2018

When we were young, I saw Maria every school day for our five years as undergraduate, then graduate, magazine majors at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. I saw her as an awesome mix of intelligence, fierce ambition, amazing strength, assertiveness and confidence combined with intriguing earthiness and European elegance.  I admired her, resented her and envied her as we competed relentlessly with each other on a daily basis -- in the classroom and in our shared affection for a certain male classmate Tim Schellhardt. Tim was blissfully unaware of the silent psychodrama swirling around him. He simply considered the two of us good friends and eventually resolved our situation by falling in love with and marrying someone else entirely while maintaining lifelong friendships with both Maria and me.

There were times in our years as classmates when I caught a glimpse of Maria's capacity to care, even if it meant doing or saying something hard -- like the time, sitting across a lunch table from me during our graduate year, she forced me to face the truth about something I hadn't wanted to imagine. In my feigned nonchalance, followed by tears, I was blinded by anger and embarrassment to the genuine caring in her eyes, though in memory, I see that flicker...

While Maria and I did not keep in touch for many years after graduation, our mutual friend Tim kept us posted on each other. I found myself rejoicing, in time, over Maria's success as a financial journalist, over the happiness she found in her marriage to Lamar Brantley, over her love for his three children by his previous marriage and over her joy when they were blessed with their daughter Nina, who grew up to be accomplished, adventurous and lovely, very much in the spirit of her mother. And so many times over the years, I wished we had been friends. We should have been friends. I had always felt a strong bond with her, given our shared ambitions and interests. But I never reached out to her until the year before our 50th college reunion.

Two things happened to make me reach out: the alumni office at Northwestern sent me a list of classmates to contact for the reunion and I was thrilled to see Maria's name and email address on that list. And looking through my small box of college mementos, I found a photograph that took me back years. It was a picture I had taken on assignment for my photography class, one I had churlishly discarded into my outtake file, somehow the only photo file that survived through the years. I had been taking a picture of Tim walking on campus when, suddenly, out of nowhere, Maria ran up and linked her arm in his just as the shutter clicked.  But now, more than 50 years later, I took a picture of the picture and sent the digital copy, along with an email, to Maria.

Tim and Maria, November 1966
She responded immediately and warmly and it was the beginning of our year long heartfelt correspondence leading up to the reunion. And in this year of building a friendship -- one that should have happened half a century before -- I began to see Maria in a new way: I saw her tenderness, her kindness, her emotional generosity. And I came to treasure her as a new old friend.

She changed travel plans in order to attend the reunion, where we fell into each other's arms in front of our smiling, if somewhat surprised, friend Tim. The three of us spent a glorious day together -- talking, laughing, delighting in each other's stories, lingering over a three hour lunch. It was then that I heard the details of Maria's back story. She had been born in the Ukraine in the waning days of World War II and her family then fled to a refugee camp in postwar Germany where they spent the next seven years, where her sister Daria was born and where the family's lifelong friendships with other refugees were formed before they all started their new lives in Chicago's Ukrainian community. Hearing about her early life, I understood, with new clarity, why she was so strong, so assertive, so fiercely ambitious at such a young age. She had to be.
Tim and Maria, October 2017

Maria and me, October 2017

When Maria was leaving the reunion at the end of the day, she kissed both Tim and me and hugged us tightly for a long time. I marveled at her warmth and her joy in sharing the day with us. Turning to Tim after she left, I said with wonder -- as if this were something quite new -- "Maria's such a wonderful person."

Tim look surprised for a moment, then smiled. "She always was," he said quietly.

We had no way of knowing that we had just said "Goodbye" to Maria in person for the last time, though many months of delighted emails would follow as she rejoiced in our good news and shared her own -- a wonderful trip with her husband to Patagonia and, a month later, her "best birthday ever!" and finally, an eagerly anticipated trip to Phoenix in May to see Lamar's youngest grandchild graduate from high school that would also bring a chance for us to get together again. They canceled the trip at the last minute because Maria was experiencing bouts of vertigo. She told me that it was probably nothing and that we would have our visit -- perhaps when Arizona cooled down a bit in the fall.

But that was not to be. Three weeks after our last email exchange, only eight months after our joyous 50th reunion, cancer claimed Maria's life. She had battled it, off and on, for some years -- something she had never told us because she didn't want to be defined by her disease or to be seen as an invalid when she was so very much alive, right up to the end.

And she came gloriously alive for us once more at her Celebration of Life on August 26 in Chicago. Tim and I attended and, at Lamar's request, we both spoke of our college experiences with Maria.

Speaking at Maria's Memorial, August 2018

Tim speaking at Maria's memorial, August 2018

 But we both quickly understood that our perspective was limited and that this celebration was a wonderful chance to see and know Maria with new clarity...

...Through the eyes of her beloved husband Lamar, who started his tribute with "Maria wasn't everyone's cup of tea..." but made it clear that she was the love of his life.


....Through the eyes of her daughter Nina who remembered her love, her sense of adventure and her quiet courage and who is living these splendid qualities of her mother's in her own amazing life.


....Through the eyes of her sister Daria who asked us to imagine what it must have been like to be the younger sister of this true force of nature, but who sadly noted in ending that she had missed having Maria there to tell her exactly what to wear for this occasion.


...Through the eyes of Nicholas, the grandson from Arizona, who expressed his love and gratitude for Maria, remembering how she always accepted and embraced him and took him to his first Gay Pride parade shortly after he came out to the family.

....Through the eyes of friends who had known her forever, since their days in the refugee camp in Germany and through decades of multigenerational friendships since, as their families became each other's extended families and who could look back in time to see her in her Chicago childhood as a Ukrainian Scout, then as a scout leader and a mentor to other young women growing up in Chicago's Ukrainian community. She never forgot where she came from and gave back, in so many ways, to those who came after her, time and time again.

We tend to see others through the prism of our own experiences with them. What a revelation and a blessing it is to get a chance to see someone we loved and thought we knew well through other, more knowing eyes. It was a special privilege to see Maria through the memories of those she loved most -- and to realize, with wonder, how much more there was to know and admire and love.
My brother Michael, who lives in Bangkok, Thailand, wrote a warm email in response to my glowing account of Maria's Celebration of Life: "I'm so glad that you were finally able to really see Maria after all these years before it was too the way that Emily in 'Our Town' wished her family could stop and see each with time going by so fast."

Yes. It was a joy to see past those early rivalries to glimpse the inimitable Maria and to know her even better as I listened to the stories of those who knew and loved her best.

And what a life lesson, Tim and I agreed, as we stepped out into the steaminess of an August day in Chicago. It was a lesson in looking at and truly seeing a family member or treasured friend -- the pain and courage and strength of another, the concern, the care, the love in the eyes of another. It was a lesson in savoring each moment of life with those we love and of looking beyond the surface to the truth of another. It was a lesson in saying what is true and necessary and urgent before time moves on,

I looked at Tim and saw, at once, the lovable young classmate and the loving grandfather, and, consistent through the decades, his brilliance and talent, his warmth, his unique sense of humor, his goodness, his kindness, his generosity of spirit. I smiled as I saw him in all his familiarity and complexity and his innate talent for being, at once, dignified and wonderfully funny.

"I love you, dearest friend, unconditionally and forever."

And we embraced, united in our celebration of Maria, and of the time, the years, we've been blessed to share as very special friends -- suddenly cherishing every, every minute.

Tim and me in a photo taken by Maria, October 2017