Insure Your Success In Business By Learning From My Mistakes

Ten years ago this week, Alan and I opened our non-profit organization, Merrimack Hall Performing Arts Center, to the public. Spending 10 years as a full-time “philanthropist” has been exhilarating, exhausting and enlightening.  I’ve learned more in the past 10 years than I did in the 46 preceding years so it must be true that you can teach an old gal new tricks. Unfortunately, my newfound knowledge was gained only by making mistakes. Massive, heinous, costly and unnecessary mistakes are my forté.  Maybe I can save you some trouble by sharing My 6 Biggest Mistakes:

  1. Never launch a new venture – a business, a non-profit, a project, not even a party – without a solid business plan. Estimates and pro-formas scribbled on a yellow legal pad at your kitchen island at 1:00 a.m. when you are drunk on inspiration…and Jack and Coke’s…do not count as a solid business plan. We asked all sorts of people for their input and advice: attorneys, bankers, wealth managers, architects, contractors and accountants. Since all of them advised us to ditch our idea to overhaul a 100-year-old building into a non-profit theatre, we chose to ignore them. If everyone you trust tells you not to do something, perhaps you should listen. BUT…if we had listened to them, there wouldn’t be a Merrimack Hall and this post would be completely unnecessary.
    Building 2006

    Merrimack Hall Pre-Renovation, May 2006

     

  2. Never start a new endeavor without a clear mission. When we started planning our organization in 2006, we went with the “if you build it, they will come” mantra and our stated mission was simply to offer a new venue for the arts in Huntsville. What to do with that venue we had no idea. BUT…if we had settled on a mission to begin with, we wouldn’t have stumbled on the idea of offering arts education to people with special needs.

    Popovich pets

    For 7 years, we presented a full season of touring productions.

  3. Never start a new business without consulting with people who are already in the same line of work and always heed their advice. I asked lots of people for advice on how to conduct an arts education program for people with special needs. They all told me that I was unqualified and unprepared. I dismissed their concerns, telling myself it couldn’t possibly be that hard. Maybe I should have listened. It never occurred to me that we would meet children who are medically fragile, that we would work with children and adults who are non-verbal or who have seizure disorders or chronic heart conditions or who risk serious injury just attempting a pilé. It certainly never occurred to me that four children we knew and loved would pass away. BUT…if I had listened to the naysayers, that first little dance class would never have happened.
First Panoply performance

First Panoply Performance, 2009

4.  Create job descriptions based on the actual tasks required and hire people with a skill set that matches that job description. I did it backwards, creating jobs predicated on the skill set of the person I hired. Every business person I know – and my professors at Columbia Business School – warned me not to do this. I tried doing it the “right” way for 7 or 8 years, resulting in multiple failed attempts at hiring the perfect team. Almost three years ago, I finally assembled the “Dream Team.” If I had listened to the pros, I could have saved myself lots of strife. BUT…if I had written a job description for a qualified visual art instructor, I would never have found a woman who had a BA in studio art, had spent several years working as the training manager for a large non-profit and was a “genius” at the Apple Store. I combined her artistic and technical skills into a position that fills our IT, marketing, graphic design, volunteer recruitment and training, and visual art needs. It might have taken longer but doing it my way has resulted in a team with a diverse skill set and a deep and abiding love for the population we serve.

The Dream Team

The full-time Dream Team is assisted by part-time staff members Suzanne Bradley, Antony Sharpe, Patti Huebner, Angie Davis and Hayley Henderson, who volunteers her time as our Artistic Director.

5.  Do not rely on the investment of your own money to make your venture sustainable…bring in partners and investors to insure fiscal success. Obviously! You shouldn’t pour all of your resources into a money pit! BUT…because we’ve donated over $7 million of our own dollars during the past 10 years, we have a proprietary and passionate interest in the outcome of everything done at Merrimack Hall. Thousands of individuals, hundreds of businesses and dozens of granting organizations have joined in our mission due in no small part to our willingness to put our own money into the organization. You’ve got to spend money to make money and sometimes, you have to donate your own to inspire others to donate theirs.

Humanitarian Award

We were humbled to receive the Humanitarian Award in 2012.

6.  Do not lead with your heart…lead with your head. Alan and I were full of passion and full of ourselves, determined to leave a legacy on our community instead of being full of knowledge, experience and preparation. And I don’t care about this big mistake I made. Because when you choose to invest your time and money into any endeavor, you’ll never be successful without an endless supply of heart.

PUP West

We even have an affiliate program in Ashland, Oregon!

Now that I think about it, I wouldn’t change a thing. Because of our blissful ignorance and full-hearted desire to make life better for someone else, we surged ahead without considering the downside. Good ideas have a way of shutting down detractors and our enthusiasm helped recruit hundreds of students, volunteers and extended families to buy into our idea. Had we hesitated…or shown our fear of the unknown…at any point during these past 10 years, the community that our families and volunteers have built through the novel approach to inclusion that is at the heart of everything we do at Merrimack Hall would not exist.

Peyton and Vivian

The arts bringing together folks who otherwise wouldn’t have met…that’s inclusion to me!

The only remaining hurdle is to insure the fiscal solvency of Merrimack Hall. Because of my mistakes, we uncovered a growing and critical need, one that outpaces our ability to fund it alone. We’ve come too far to turn back now…the vibrant community of lives that intersect at Merrimack Hall is counting on us.

Group bow

First summer camp for teens, June 2010

So, I’m moving forward into Merrimack Hall’s second decade determined to increase donations and lower costs. I’m determined to expand the ever-growing circle of Merrimack Hall’s impact. I’m determined to learn from my mistakes. I won’t make these again…I’ll just make new ones. Stay tuned….

Hayley XMas pic

First holiday production, December 2011

If you’d like to join us in our effort to serve people with special needs, click the link below to donate or contact volunteer@merrimackhall.com to get involved! Any amount – of your money or of your time – will help to improve the quality of life for people with special needs and their families.

http://www.merrimackhall.com/donate/

Chloe angel pic

This little nugget is a teenager now…and a terrific tap dancer!

Ten Ways I Survived A Personal Crisis

This time last year, I was in the final throes of a personal crisis, one that broke my spirit and my heart. My personal crisis had been brewing for quite some time, leaving me mentally and physically exhausted. I worried I might never mend. It wasn’t a tragic event, like the loss of a loved one, but rather was the culmination of years of defeats that knocked the wind out of my sails. As the defeats and setbacks accumulated, making a comeback seemed impossible.

During the past year, there were many mornings when I had to force myself out of bed and just as many when I got up but never left the house. There were days when I engaged in non-stop, frenetic activity but more often I closed the door to my bedroom and shut out the world.

The things that had always sustained me…family, friends, music, dance, etc…seemed pointless so I spent a lot of time this year watching bad TV and eating drive-thru fast food alone. Over the past few months, I’ve gradually come back to life. I credit a support group, a great counselor, my husband and my students with special needs for the renewal of my spirit.

I kept a list of the things that have helped me during this rough year…thought it might come in handy if the dark cloud over my heart ever lifted. Since I’m through the worst of it, I decided to share my list of Ten Ways To Get Over A Personal Crisis:

  1.  Give yourself permission to wallow. Literally. In your bed, under the covers, maybe with your pet or an infant. Preferably not your own infant, because if its yours, you’ll have to take care of it. Borrow one from a friend or high-jack your grandchild. Keep the infant just long enough to snuggle that sweet bundle and smell his/her head…the most comforting smell on earth. Wallow as long as you need.  It make take a while. Do not feel guilty about this wallowing (see #4 below). I frequently borrow this precious nugget! On this day, the only reason I left my house was to see him.
  2. Only do those things which are critical to your job or your life. Prioritize! Answer emails that need immediate attention and leave the rest alone. You’d be surprised how many things can lose their urgency…or be solved by someone else…if you just ignore them for a while. Pay your bills, make sure you have clean underwear – you get my drift – but if it’s not hot-potato urgent, ignore it.
  3. Delegate anything and everything possible to anyone you can – to your kids, your spouse, your co-workers. If you tell folks you’re having a hard time and need their help, I’ve found people are more than willing to oblige.
  4. Forgive yourself for needing a break. I’ve struggled with feeling guilty for all the things I’ve neglected but I shouldn’t. There is absolutely nothing wrong with stepping off the merry-go-round occasionally. In fact, if I had taken breaks from the merry-go-round before the crisis came to a head, I might have been better able to deal with it.
  5. Lose the mindset that “busy” is an acceptable lifestyle. We glorify being busy. “How does she do it?” we ask ourselves. “He’s involved in everything so I must be a loser,” we tell ourselves. But busy just means we’re overloaded, over-obligated and spread too thin. Busy is what we are when we forget that life isn’t supposed to be about crossing things off a to-do list, enrolling our children in every possible activity or throwing elaborate parties. I know some people who are chronically “busy” and from the outside, they may seem happy, involved and engaged. Before last year, I was one of those folks myself. My experience is that when we are too busy it’s not because we have a fulfilling life but rather because we’ve bitten off more than we can chew or chronic procrastination has caught up with us.
  6. Vow to say “no” to everything that doesn’t lift your spirits. And I mean everything. Whether its a wedding, an informal get together, a committee, extra work projects – just say “no.” This may be hard for if you suffer from what my young friends tell me is a condition known as FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out. Sure, you may miss something but if you’re having a hard time coping with everyday life, going to a party or taking on a big project won’t do anything but make you feel worse. “No,” is a complete sentence.
  7. Stay off social media! I’ve been working my way through feelings of failure – as a wife, mother, friend, professional woman. The last thing I needed was to see heinous political posts or pictures of a fabulous vacation someone took while I was wallowing. When your heart is broken, you’re susceptible to buying into the notion that everyone else has their life “together,” as evidenced by what they curate onto their pages. Or susceptible to being irritated by those obnoxious people who have “started a business” (code for, “I’m selling tacky clothes or sheets or skincare products or strange kitchen implements you will never use”) they want to tell you about by adding you to groups or sending you unsolicited messages. When you’re ready to dip your toe back into the social media vortex, delete from your newsfeed anything that doesn’t make you smile.
  8. Avoid making big changes during your transition from broken to mended. Like, don’t cut your hair off or dye it a crazy color or redecorate the living room. Now is not the time to be adventurous.
  9. Do not go shopping. For anything. Not even online. Especially not online. You will only end up buying things you don’t need or worse, that don’t fit, which will exponentially increase the guilt you are feeling for wallowing and eating bad food instead of exercising and dieting.
  10. Never compare your healing process to anyone else. Its easy to say, “Look at her…she has a tougher burden than I do and she’s doing fine.”  What is soul-crushing to me might be a walk in the park to you. There’s no such thing as a “normal” reaction to life-altering events. Besides, what difference does it make if someone else gets over a crisis faster than you do? You’re the only one who will know when it’s time for you to hop back on the merry-go-round.

By sharing this post, I guess I’m hopping back on the merry-go-round. This time, I’ll try to take the lessons I’ve learned on the ride with me! 

 

 

What I Know About Marriage On The Eve Of My 30th Anniversary

On March 22, 1986, at 2:00 p.m., Alan and I got married.

Our wedding day...so young and in love!

Our wedding day…so young and in love!

We had dated for five years already. We were young, naive and in love. Thirty years later, we are older and wiser but we’re not “in love” anymore. What I feel for him after 30 years has no resemblance to the feelings I had on the day I said, “I do.” At 25, he made my heart flutter…and I thought that’s what love was.

The boy I fell in love with at 21. Isn't he adorable?

The boy I fell in love with at 21. Isn’t he adorable?

At 55, he makes my heart swell…with gratitude and pride…gratitude that we are still together and pride that we have beat the odds (And he does still make my heart flutter…just in a deeper, more profound and more meaningful way!).

Statistics say we shouldn’t still be married. I’m damn proud of us…for course-correcting as we go and for keeping our eye on the prize. There aren’t a lot of folks our age who can say that they’ve only been married once because it’s hard work. There have been many times during our thirty-year marriage when one of us may have wanted to throw in the towel and we’ve both given each other many reasons to do just that. But we didn’t.

So, in a spirit of self-congratulations, I offer you my unsolicited advice on staying married. Wherever you may be on the relationship journey, here’s what I know to be true:

  1. Start by choosing well. We knew enough about each other’s basic value system that we could confidently state we shared same approach to life and wanted the same general outcome. Before Alan, I had never met anyone who looked at life and its purpose through the same filter as me. We shared the same basic philosophy about religion, politics, money and family, although we were too young to have tested any of the theories we held on these topics.
  2. Always respect each other. We may not always agree and we definitely utilize different tactics to get where we want to go but we have a deep and abiding respect for what the other brings to the table.
  3. Understand that if you dissolve a marriage, the issues within that marriage will follow you. The problem with getting divorced is that unless you do a tremendous amount of personal work, the issues that broke up your marriage will continue to haunt you…and they will be magnified by the divisions divorce creates. We figured we might as well stick it out with each other because had we chosen to walk away from our marriage, our personal shortcomings would still be there, staring back at us in the mirror. We both have a lot of personal growth still left to do but we’ve always agreed that it would be easier to do that growth side by side than it would be to do that work apart, with the complications of second marriages, stepchildren, and all that goes along with divorce.

    Our young family in 1992

    Our young family in 1992

  4. Find things to be passionate about together. From the Beatles and the arts to Alabama football, we have always looked for ways to share mutual enthusiasm. There are lots of things we enjoy separately and those things are important to us as individuals but there are some things that we invest our energy into equally. These shared interests give us something to focus on when our separate interests collide.
    He likes to fish. I like to shop.

    He likes to fish. I like to shop.

    And we are lucky that all of our shared passions clicked together when we created Merrimack Hall.

    With a few of our students in 2014

    With a few of our students in 2014

  5. Focus on the legacy that your marriage will leave. I imagine that all people who have long-term marriages have a commitment to leaving some sort of legacy – for their children or their religion or their profession or their community. Alan and I both know that separately, we can leave a mark and we both have. But together, we can make a more powerful statement. I bet every couple who’s been together long enough will say the same thing.

And the most powerful thing I know about being married is this:

7. “We” is more important than “me.” We have approached every challenge and every triumph from the mindset of “we.” There have been dozens of times when what was best for “we” might not have been what was best for either of us personally but we were committed to the notion that when we said, “I Do,” we were forging an alliance that was more important than either of us as individuals.

As I scrolled through photos to use for this post, I was struck by the fact that we all have pictures of ourselves and our lives at our best. I have hundreds of photos of Alan and me at moments of great personal achievement and of great happiness.

Meeting Sir Paul McCartney...definitely a high point

Meeting Sir Paul McCartney…definitely a high point

Receiving the Humanitarian Award in 2014

Receiving the Humanitarian Award in 2014

I wish I had photos that show the turmoil, heartbreak, anger, frustration, chaos and sadness that have marked our 30-year marriage because those would be the photos that really tell the story: when the bank balance is “zero;” when parents age and die; when children veer off course and we fear for their future happiness; when arguments escalate into low-blow name-calling; when business ventures fail; when we embarrass ourselves in public; when we make mistakes that the other predicted but we wouldn’t listen to their advice; when we vehemently disagree on matters of great importance; when we hurt each other…these are the photos I wish I had because they would be the ones that tell the story of staying married for 30 years.

I treasure the moments of heartache and hurt almost as much as I cherish the memories of happiness and joy because it was in those moments that seemed the most hopeless that we chose to remember that WE are more important than ME. And that’s why we’ve managed to stay married for 30 years.

So, Alan, love of my life and best friend forever, congratulations to us. If we’ve made it through everything life has thrown us so far, I’d say we’re golden for the next 30 years. And to borrow Chelsie’s phrase, Alan…you I love.

 

 

I Owe You An Apology

Dear Readers:

I did a crappy thing on Tuesday. I hit “publish” on a blog post about what happened when I went to the polls and didn’t bother to think through all the implications of my words. I was angry and wanted to make a point. In doing so, I undercut my own position.

If you read the post, you will remember that I took a potshot at an ignorant couple who made a disgusting and disparaging remark about a person with special needs – a potshot at what I presumed to be their religion based on their attire. I mocked their appearance when it would have served me much better to let their words stand for themselves.

To me, someone who uses the “R” word is ignorant and heartless. It makes no difference how that person looks or dresses…it only matters that they are a lowlife who disparages someone because of a disability.

Amazing, isn’t it, how the more heated and emotional we become, the more we ratchet up our rhetoric? I complained in my post about people who take to Facebook to insult others because of their politics and then I did the exact same thing. My ego prevented me from using my head. “I’m so clever and funny,” I said to myself as I wrote my description of the couple. Only problem is, I was so caught up with being clever and funny, with presenting my one side of an argument that I neglected to think about friends of mine who might be hurt by my words…which is what I meant to point out to other people. Hypocritical of me to say the least.

I have friends who go to churches that encourage its members to wear certain things or dress in certain ways…Hasidic Jews, Pentecostals and others. As I wrote my vitriol and congratulated myself on my sanctimonious stance, I forgot about them. I have felt guilty and ashamed of myself ever since.

I stand by every word I wrote about people posting their politics on Facebook and every thing I said about voting rights for people with special needs. I even stand by my use of the “F” word and by my assertion that you shouldn’t complain but take action. But how I wish I could take back those few sentences that called attention to the assumptions I made about the religious affiliation of that horrible couple.

I have learned my lesson and to anyone who was offended by my remarks about the couple, I am hope you can accept my apology.

Can we all have a great weekend and take a break from divisive social media posts? I’d love to see lots of grand babies, vacations, uplifting messages and funny stuff in my newsfeed tomorrow morning!

Thanks for reading,

Debra

 

 

Are We Lowering The Barre…Or Raising It?

Project Up dancers performed at the 2013 Dizzy Feet Foundation Gala in LA

Project Up dancers performed at the 2013 Dizzy Feet Foundation Gala in LA

Well, hello again dance lovers!

Last week, I wrote about dance costumes. If you read through the comments on this blog and all over social media, you notice that people raised some big issues – the objectification of women, the exploitation and over-sexualization of children, our body-shaming culture, the prevalence of explicit lyrics in music and much more. Perhaps I should have shared what happened that led to me to write it, since I’ve never written about this topic before. I also want to share with you the one comment out of thousands that…well, it hurt my feelings.

I attended a dance competition in another state because my students with special needs were included in this event, offering the opportunity to spread our message of acceptance and to show hundreds of dancers, their teachers and their families that dance is truly for everyone, regardless of their challenges. This video is an example of what my incredible students and their teenage volunteers can do and there’s another video link at the bottom of this post:

* I’m only speaking about female dancers in this post. This does not mean I am negating or disrespecting the presence of boys in the dance world.*

For about six hours, I watched dancer after dancer perform in her underwear. Maybe its because I was in another state or maybe I just haven’t paid attention to this trend but it was surprising to me how different these costumes were from what I’m used to seeing.

And then it happened…a beautiful girl in the teen category (which means she is not older than 16), a girl who I do not know, from a dance studio I’ve never heard of, did her 11th leg tilt facing the audience and she had – well, let’s just say she had a hugely unfortunate wardrobe malfunction involving the bikini bottom she was wearing – without tights –  resulting in what must have been the most embarrassing moment of that lovely young girl’s life.

There was an audible gasp from the crowd but she maintained her composure and finished her performance, as dancers are taught to do. I was left with a roaring rage directed at the adults in her life who allowed that to happen to her. Adults who selected her costume. Parents who paid for that costume. Adults who did not insure that the costume was properly anchored with butt glue or toupee tape (yes, these items are part of competition dance and apparently many other activities children do these days). And so I wrote my post and hit “publish,” expecting that maybe 5,000 people might read it. Imagine my surprise when half a million of you showed up!

I’ve dug through thousands of comments on social media to see which way the pendulum of public opinion is swinging and according to my scientific poll numbers (obtained by me and my husband adding up likes, positive comments and negative comments with a calculator), 80% of the people who read it agree with me and 18% vehemently disagree with me. The remaining 2% were commenters who admitted they hadn’t read my post but had an opinion anyway. Oh, social media, you can be so entertaining!

Many of those who disagreed with me said they were dance moms. Go figure? The refrain of “It’s only sexual because you’re making it that way…get your mind out of the gutter…quit slut shaming girls” was common amongst my detractors. It’s interesting to me that the original post never used the word “sex.” And I did not shame the dancers…they are children, who have absolutely no choice in the matter. A dancer is going to wear whatever the hell her dance teacher tells her to wear.

And what was the comment that wounded my soul? It said, “This is just another example of the older generation trying to impose their views on the rest of us.”

Older generation? Wait a damn minute, now. When did I become the older generation?

Oh, right…it was when I turned 55 last October and an envelope from AARP showed up in my mailbox, uninvited and unwelcome. I cut up the membership card and threw it in the trash. Whew…that was a close call. I can still pretend I’m not eligible for senior discounts or early bird specials! According to TV commercials, I am actually a candidate for a senior care facility…worry-free living for seniors age 55 and up, they said. I’ll pass on that. I may not understand how the Kardashians became a thing but I’m not going to go quietly into the nursing home just yet. I wrote once before about how I feel about getting older and now someone else feels compelled to remind me that I’m no spring chick.

But you know that old saying, “With age comes wisdom?” It’s true. Or at least it gives you the hindsight and perspective to see things a bit more objectively. Back when I was a teenager, we got a lot of mixed messages from our society – it was the ’70’s, after all. But the mixed messages our girls, especially those involved in competitive dance, are receiving today are more convoluted than any other time in my life.

“You can be anything you want to be, you can break that glass ceiling, you can have it all,” we tell our girls. “You own your own body…you are woman, let me hear you roar.” And then we trot them out to perform, all tarted up and twerking, teaching our girls too early that “sex sells.”

Dance is an activity that should leave a girl feeling empowered, strong and confident. It is an activity where her body is her instrument and as such, should be respected and celebrated. But are we celebrating our young dancers or are we exploiting them? Maybe I’m just too old to understand the answer. But I am still young enough to know that you can be trendy without being tacky and you can give girls confidence in themselves without selling them out.

There has been an evolution in competition dance that has turned it into demanding sport with a higher degree of difficulty than ever, which must be considered when selecting attire for class and performances. If a costume matches age-appropriate music, adds to the story of the dance and can accommodate the dancer’s movements without leaving a tender young person exposed, that’s a win. But if its gratuitous skimpiness, if its just dancing in your underwear, then I think it’s time for a revolution.

Let’s raise the barre for dance, not lower it.

Program Director Melissa, Artistic Director Hayley and dancer Katie with Nigel Lythgoe

Program Director Melissa, Artistic Director Hayley and dancer Katie with Nigel Lythgoe

 

Another Post About My Boobs

It’s been six months since I had a preventative double mastectomy, thanks to the BRCA 1 gene mutation that has run roughshod through the women in my family and to paraphrase one of my daughter’s favorite bands, it’s been a long, strange ride. There have been moments of hilarity and others of sadness. Sometimes, I go for days without thinking about the implants that are in my chest now and other times when I think about them constantly. There are days when I forget the rule I imposed on myself about a month after surgery – never accidentally glance in the full length mirror while naked – and when I catch that unexpected glimpse, I don’t recoil the way I did when I made up the rule.

I guess time does heal all wounds…and what time won’t heal, a good plastic surgeon will!

I had a follow up surgery two days ago, a “revision” as the plastic surgeon calls it. One of my good friends asked me why in the world I was having another surgery “at my age” so I told her to shut the hell up. She said, “You look fine with your clothes on so why bother?”

I answered, “Because sometimes I have to take off my clothes…like, I don’t know…to shower? And because sometimes when I’m in a hurry and brush my teeth while still dripping from the shower, I’m disgusted by the puckers, folds and pockets that I can see, right where my breasts used to be. And because I’m a woman, albeit an old one, who would still like to have breasts.”

And then I told her to shut the hell up again, just for good measure.

There was some aspect of cosmetic to this surgery but mostly it was done because I didn’t want to spend another day with my boobs refusing to go where I’m going or another night when the left one decides not to roll over with the rest of me. When I bend down to pick something up or to feed the cats, the boobs don’t want to stand back up, too. The type of reconstruction I had involved a small “muscle pocket,” whatever that is, with the implant snuggled in it but they didn’t feel snuggled. The way the damn things were moving around in my chest, I was afraid if we didn’t do something to anchor them better they might end up on my back.

The surgeon re-tucked the bottom incision under each breast, making them tighter and less likely to go their own way. It seems like the surgery might have done the trick because this morning when I bent forward to wrap my wet hair in a towel, my boobs were with me by the time I was upright. As an added bonus, the surgeon suctioned some fat from my abdomen and injected it around the implant to serve as a cushion. I told him to feel free to do any sculpting he wanted while he was at it but I don’t think he did. I’m black, blue, yellow and green from my upper chest to my lower abdomen but even through all the bruising, I can see that I still don’t have a flat belly…I’ve never had one but an old gal can dream, can’t she?

Another friend suggested that I had this surgery purely for vanity’s sake. I couldn’t believe she would say that to me because she knows I’m not the slightest bit vain.

Okay, I’ll admit it…I am sort of vain.

But it wasn’t vanity that drove me back to surgery. It was the discomfort, the rolling implants, the frustration with not being able to find a comfortable sleeping position, the implants stubborn refusal to cooperate with my movements that made me want to “tweak” (the plastic surgeon’s word, not mine) my breasts one more time. And it was the hope that by securing them better, I might be less aware of them…every minute of every day.

When I first wrote about my conflicting feelings about having a preventative mastectomy, I received hundreds of messages from women around the globe, women who are facing the same tough choices I had or women who have battled cancer. One woman wrote to me, “The entire process – the decision-making, the surgery, the recovery – will take a physical and emotional toll on you that no one can prepare you for.” Boy was she ever right! There are still times when I want to cry over the loss of my breasts – and sometimes, I allow myself to. But most of the time I can fend off the melancholy by reminding myself how lucky I am.

Lucky that I found out I carry the gene mutation, lucky that I have a supportive husband and children to nurse me back to health, lucky that I dodged the breast and ovarian cancer bullet that was headed straight for me. At those moments when I feel sorry for myself – like the first time I wore a swimsuit or the first time I bought new bras – I remember what the pathologist told me a few days after my mastectomy; that my left breast was riddled with pre-cancerous and atypical cells and that I would have definitely found a lump in two years or less. So lucky.

Now that I’ve been through the pain and indignity of a mastectomy, I don’t know how women who have cancer do it…how they suffer through a surgery so awful and then immediately go to war with an enemy as insidious as cancer. Sometimes, I feel guilty that my fate was easier than theirs, guilty that I’m complaining about implants that bob around while they are fighting for their lives. My friends who have cancer tell me they are glad that genetics have advanced to this point and they are happy we have options that were unheard of just a few years ago.

The doctor says it will only take three to four days to heal and that if I’m not satisfied with the result, he can “tweak” some more but I’m done with tweaks. As long as we’re headed in the same direction, my boobs and I will be just fine from now on.

 

On Taking A Girl With Down Syndrome To The Prom

Every spring, I see posts and articles like this one, about a handsome quarterback who invites a girl with special needs to be his date to the prom. Messages threads on multiple postings of this story, and others like it, always share a common theme:

“This boy restores my faith in humanity.”
“A true hero. His parents must be so proud.”
“His parents raised him right.”
“What a kind and wonderful thing this boy did to give her a night she will never forget.”

Yes, it is wonderful to see “typical” kids including kids with special needs in activities and it’s true that this boy…and the hundreds like him who ask someone with special needs to proms and homecomings…is clearly a kind and compassionate friend. This particular story isn’t just about the boy asking the girl on a date to a big event; it involves a friendship they have shared since fourth grade and the promise he made to her when they were ten-years-old that they would go to the prom together. So he gets multiple brownie points for being a man of his word. But I personally don’t think he’s a hero or that he extended an extraordinary act of kindness to a girl.

I think he’s a guy who wanted to ask a girl he likes and values to go to the prom with him. Period.

Why do we think he has done something heroic and selfless by asking his friend to share this right-of-passage, milestone moment with him? Why wouldn’t he want to ask someone who has been his friend for seven years to attend the big event? Maybe he asked her simply because he thought she would be the most fun date he could possibly have.

This boy might have been concerned that asking a “typical” girl to the prom – maybe the Homecoming Queen or a cheerleader – could mean that he’d spend the evening waiting on her to emerge from the bathroom, where she would spend most of the party gossiping with her friends. Or he might have worried that other potential dates would go to the dance, get totally wasted and puke all over his car and her expensive dress, which happens with alarming regularity at the high school parties in my community. Maybe he didn’t want to share his prom with a girl who would look at the other kids with judgement or critique the others girls’ dresses or hairdos. Why is it hard to believe that he chose to ask her – and she chose to say yes – because they like each other?

What if he asked her because he knew that she was the girl would treat the evening with the respect it deserves? What if he knew that she was the girl who would cherish the evening, say “yes” every time he asked her to dance and savor everything about being there with him? What if he knew that she was the girl who would make him feel like a prince if he treated her like a princess for one special evening?

To believe the notion that kids who are friends with kids who have special needs are somehow more noble or heroic than other teens is to think that there’s something wrong with being friends with kids who are “different.” He took her to the prom because he felt sorry for her or he took her because he wanted to make himself look good to others or he took her to the prom because no one else would.

Excuse me, but look at her…she’s gorgeous! Why can’t we imagine that he took her to the prom because he thinks she cute? And dare I say it…why is is hard to imagine that a typical teen might have a romantic interest in a teen with special needs? I loved the episode of Glee that featured Becky, the cheerleader with Down syndrome, and her typical boyfriend because when some of Becky’s friends questioned his motives for wanting to date her, he indignantly told them that (paraphrase) he liked her, plain and simple.

down syndrome prom date

What I see in these pictures is a beautiful young woman and a handsome young man who are about to have a great night. They look happy to be together and maybe a little anxious to dispense with the photo shoot and get on with the party. They look like they are proud to be chosen by each other for this special event.

When we make his choice to take her to the prom evidence of his extraordinary heroism, we diminish her. And we diminish all girls every time we tell them, in subtle and overt ways, that they are not complete unless they have a boyfriend, or unless their boyfriend gives them a corsage more elaborate than the other girls, or unless they get the most elaborate “promposal” of the year.

Hey, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s all agree to stop diminishing all girls – special needs or not…in any way…starting right now…Got it? Thanks!

So, he’s not a hero. But he is a handsome young fella who asked a beautiful gal to the prom. They are young people who have sustained a meaningful relationship since elementary school and who, I imagine, will continue to sustain their relationship for many years to come. And I bet that at their prom, they created memories they will both treasure for the rest of their lives.

And on a personal note, these two get my vote for the most adorable prom couple of the year!

Anna and Nathan, Prom 2015

Anna and Nathan, Prom 2015