HAPPY AT THE MOVIES

When I arrived early to the movie, I decided to buy popcorn and eat it in the theater’s lounge behind the ticket taker’s line. This location allowed me to happily “people watch.” Rogue One: A STAR WARS STORY was in its second day of release, and swarms of eager Star Wars’ fans jammed the lobby.

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Star Wars isn’t my favorite movie franchise. I’ve seen only the original 1977 film, but I can appreciate the devotion of its fans. Countless school-age boys, who seemed wildly excited, waited in line. Numerous couples were in the crowd as well as many individuals in their twenties and thirties. Their excitement and happiness unified them in my mind. Watching all those happy filmgoers made me feel a kinship with them. I’m often at my happiest at the movies, and I understood their emotions. Star Wars doesn’t need to be my favorite film franchise for me to appreciate the joy I see in its devotees. I watched the new Will Smith film, Collateral Beauty, but I’m grateful to Star Wars for another happy experience at the movies.

RIP Carrie Fisher. You were amazing in life and in the movies. We will miss your wit and courage

 

Letting Go of Control in India

This blog was published on the HuffPost Blog on May 22, 2017

I met Amit because of Walmart. A year and a half after its publication, Walmart picked up my book. My publisher e-mailed me the news at work on a Friday, and by the end of the day, I could find the book on Walmart’s website. Overjoyed, I wrote a two-line message on the writers’ group Facebook page I belong to. Over five hundred people had “liked” my message by Sunday, and ninety of them sent me personal congratulations.

Within a week, strangers—I presumed from the group—began sending me friend requests. I only post messages on Facebook about my writing and related subjects, so I saw no harm in accepting the requests. A week into the friending frenzy, I received Amit’s request. Once friended, he started messaging me. I asked if he was a writer, and he explained he designed websites and had a news website in India in search of contributors. He invited me to write for his site. I told him I didn’t have time to write anything new for him, but that I’d be happy to repost some of my previously published short essays on his website

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Amit and I messaged back and forth one day when I was at home sick, and he asked if he could Facetime with me. I’m somewhat phobic about learning new technology, but sitting on my couch with nothing better to do, there he suddenly appeared on my phone, all the way from India. He created a WordPress portal for his website, and just like that, my work was published in India. I needed to change some of the titles of the posts, because idiomatic English didn’t necessarily translate to a readership from another culture. So Handicapped What? turned into The Challenges of Handicapped Parking in America. On his website, I can see how many people have opened the posts. After three posts and over a thousand views, I stopped counting.

Amit and I spoke frequently. He taught me how to use WhatsApp, and we communicated through that as well as Messenger and Facetime. With the help of an ambitious twenty-seven year old in India, I leapt head first into twenty-first century communication.

Amit had looked at the two videos on my website and wanted to create a YouTube channel for me that would help draw people to his website. I call one of my videos Death by Video because I’m so obviously uncomfortable on camera. The other video is of a Time Warner Cable Access show taped in New York City when I was promoting my book. I’ve never watched it. I was there and know what happened. I don’t need to see it.

Despite my lack of charisma on video, I agreed to Amit’s request. He confessed he wanted my help in making his dream come true. How could I refuse? To my amazement, he called the YouTube channel Happy Life with Joanna Charnas. Deeply touched by his positive perception of me, I decided to help him in any way I could. But I wondered why he chose me, a fifty-seven-year-old woman on the other side of the world, for this venture. Wouldn’t a younger and prettier person attract a bigger audience? I sometimes think of Happy Life as Nana-cam, since I’m the age of most grandmothers.

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But in the spirit of adventure and solidarity, I chose to go all in. I consider myself selfie-impaired, and I’ve never once taken a decent selfie. I learned how to use the video on my cell phone with Amit’s encouragement, and by following his general suggestions and guidelines, I began filming. I send the films to Amit and then wait. Since I subscribed to my own YouTube channel, the videos pop up on my phone whenever Amit has completed editing and posting them.

The finished videos have a sweet charm that is entirely the result of Amit’s editing. They touch me and make me smile. I’ve thanked Amit for encouraging me to be mindful of what makes me happy. Because of a lifetime of poor health, I’m always mindful about my wellness, but did not have the same approach to happiness. Amit has brought this new arena of mindfulness into my life. He also brings his own brand of optimism to our YouTube endeavor, encouraging me when I’m frustrated by my limitations and lack of experience.

I’m meticulous when writing. I work closely with an editor, and every word and comma is reviewed and evaluated. I want my writing to be the best it can be, and I’ll labor as much as necessary toward that goal. But with Happy Life, I simply do my best and then let go. I’m merely the talent, and Amit is the producer. I remind myself that while YouTube is global, most likely the viewers of Happy Life with Joanna Charnas are in some way connected to Amit’s website in India. I’m ignorant about cultural issues in India, and I trust that Amit knows his viewers. I don’t worry about production values, because I’m not the producer.

The contrast between my writing life and my YouTube life is striking. It’s a huge relief to let go of control and to trust another person with the final product. Amit has challenged me to learn new technology, to be mindful about my life, and to relinquish control. He’s also become my friend. I’m grateful for it all.

(Feel free to check out my videos on YouTube at Happy Life with Joanna Charnas)

SECOND ANNUAL CONSULT LIAISON BACON-OFF

In 2011 I mastered cooking chocolate-covered bacon. I’d eaten it at the County Fair and wanted to explore replicating this odd treat. After much experimentation, I perfected the recipe. Occasionally I’d make the chocolate-covered bacon for curious friends or incredulous co-workers who needed convincing that these two foods were great together.

In 2015 I worked for the emergency mental health service (Consult Liaison–CL) at my hospital. I decided we should have a “Bacon-Off,” a feast of all things bacon. I involved the entire team. In large letters on our whiteboard I wrote, “Sometimes you have to eat some dead pig” and signed it Albert Einstein. A few doctors thought the quote was authentic, necessitating that I explain the joke.

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At the end of 2015, I moved positions to a different part of the Mental Health Department. I convinced my successor in Consult Liaison to host the 2nd Annual CL Bacon-Off. Once again everyone got on board, and we enjoyed a feast of all things bacon. My successor completely committed to the event, making possibly the best bacon I’ve ever eaten.

When we live with chronic illness, we need to remember to have fun. The Consult Liaison Bacon-Off helped me have fun and brought my colleagues, old and new, along for the ride. To my beloved vegetarian and vegan readers, I respect your choices and hope you don’t take offense at mine.

LOVE, PART 2

Love doesn’t solve any of life’s problems, but it makes everything a little easier. My two favorite people are my niece and nephew, Nate and Juliet. Whether I’m feeling well or am having a bad day, my world is infinitely better with these two wonderful people in it

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Photo credit: Margaret Charnas

Finding Myself Again in Venice

This essay was first published on the HuffPost blog in April, 2017.

When traveling, we never truly get away. We might leave our daily stresses and responsibilities at home, but the best and worst of our personalities are always present wherever we go. Packed along with the toiletries and underwear are our greatest loves and deepest fears. We cannot escape them. We find ourselves in different surroundings, still grounded by the full range of our inescapable natures.

Optimally, a vacation helps us find balance, aided by the absence of the quotidian tasks that remain at home. We relax, regroup, and reflect. I recently spent a week in Venice. My friends surprised me by questioning my choice to travel alone. Won’t you be lonely, they asked? No, I replied confidently. I’ll meet people. It will be fine.

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I’d been alone in Paris in 1988, not by choice. The friend I visited had a family crisis and departed for the US on the second day of my stay. I’d received sufficient guidance from him and from my brother, who’d recently the city to know how to get around. I met wonderful people in Paris every day. I schmoozed with elderly German sisters while on line to the Eiffel Tower, chatted with a French woman while taking a boat ride down the Seine, spoke to a Swedish man who sold Absolut Vodka while I dined on the Champs-Elysees, and met a recent American college graduate at the Louvre. Eight years later, I stood up at his wedding. I also took a cruise to Alaska, where I similarly encountered many friendly strangers. So I already knew that my outgoing nature, a trait shared by much of my family, would serve me well in Italy.

In Venice I bonded with an artist who made jewelry. When I popped into her store for the second time on my last day of the trip, she hugged my goodbye as we parted. Every day I connected with someone, even if for ten minutes. Those brief, sincere encounters were enough to quell any loneliness I might have felt.

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Conversely, on the third day of my trip, I found myself overwhelmed with worry that I had eaten and spent too much. Overeating and overspending, or the urge to, are signs that I’m out of synch and stressed. I reminded myself that I always gained weight while on vacation but promptly lose it when I return home. I hadn’t purchased anything extravagant, and enough wiggle room existed in my annual budget to absorb some extra expenses. I calmed down, but not until I suffered through several hours of distress.

After my small meltdown, I began to find an internal balance, which is when the magic began. On the third day of my eight-night trip, the housekeeper at my hotel broke my shower door. I’d book the cheapest double room at a luxury hotel, taking advantage of an off-season sale. After the shower door broke, the hotel upgraded me six levels to a three-thousand-dollar-a-night suite, including a private hallway, a canal view, and a bathtub so large I could float in it. I’d always wondered what a suite in a luxury hotel might be like but never imagined I’d stay in one. Because I was in that movie-star-like-suite, the hotel treated me like a star. I’d return to the suite late afternoons to find complementary juices, alcohol, and food waiting for me. I felt like a princess.

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I’d joked with friend about finding romance in Italy but never expected to have my wish fulfilled. Initially I met several young men with whom I had heartfelt conversations, but the vibes weren’t romantic. By the sixth day, I assumed that romance wasn’t in the cards on this trip. Then I met Giovanni. He spotted me as I entered a woody bistro and spent the entirety of my dinner wooing me, including hand-feeding me breadsticks, offering me alcohol, and sitting shoulder to shoulder with me. Giovanni reminded me of an aging Robert De Niro but with a thick accent, and he charmed me completely. He asked if he could spend the night with me, but ultimately we decided to part company with a simple embrace.

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The balance of adventure-manifesting my finer qualities and overcoming my more challenging traits, combined with some magic and romance-resulted in the vacation of a lifetime. If I hadn’t been forced to face my deficits, I’m sure I wouldn’t have appreciated the adventures as much. Venice in winter is not crowded and is clean. It’s so beautiful, it’s hard to absorb. Much of the city barely seems real, with its winding, narrow streets, clear blue water, palette of soft colors, and medieval history. In Venice I did many of my favorite things: walked endlessly, looked at architecture and art, and ate delicious food.

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When I first luxuriated in my movie-star suite, I thought, Well, I don’t need to ever visit Venice again. This is it. I’ll never again have a trip as good as this one. But on my last day, tears filled my eyes as my departure loomed. I realized while another Venetian trip wouldn’t be the same, I needed to return someday to discover myself again and have new adventures in that magical, beautiful place. Once back at home, my spirit was restored, having benefited from all that a sublime vacation can provide.

Photo credit: 1-4 Joanna Charnas

THE LITTLE THINGS, PART 3: THREE KINDS OF GIFT WRAP

gift-553143__340My brother and sister-in-law always send me a few gifts for my birthday. This year, as I gazed at the small pile of presents in my living room, I realized each gift had been prepared with different wrapping paper and ribbon. I take pride in remembering the birthdays of my friends and family, but if a gift can be wrapped in tissue paper and placed in a gift bag, I’m a happy camper. I’d never take the time and trouble to wrap three gifts differently. When I looked at my presents, I was grateful not only for the thoughtfulness that greets me every year with my small pile of birthday loot, but also for family that goes the extra mile to make my gifts festive and colorful.

STORIES OF THE GATE: PARTY ON MY WRIST

Barriers and keys allowing only staff to enter and exit define a locked psychiatric ward. I always have three keys with me at work: a key to the locked wards, a key to all the offices, and a key to the fire extinguisher cabinet. (The fire extinguisher used to be accessible to everyone until patients began misusing them.) I don’t carry metal keys in my pockets because they rip them, so instead I wear my keys on a circular plastic wristband. After we were also required to carry the fire extinguisher lock-box key, I sounded like one of Santa’s reindeer wherever I went.

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I’m always trying to lighten the mood as I go through the security gate at the naval hospital where I work. I often smile and jingle my wrist as I stick my arm out the car window to present my ID to the security guards. Sometimes I add, “Party on my wrist!” Either way, I can usually coax a smile from the guard. When we live with chronic illness, we have to make the most of every healthy day. Forcing myself to create good cheer in an otherwise mundane moment is one way I achieve that.

THE LITTLE THINGS, PART 2: A SKY THAT LOOKED LIKE A 1950’S BABY’S ROOM

As I drove through the stretch of canyon I traverse every day on my way to work, I viewed a sky that looked like the palette of a 1950’s child’s room—pale pinks and baby blues. I’ve seen this same sky five days a week for nine years, but I’d never witnessed these soft colors before. Unexpected moments like that one help me get through days of illness or stress, and I cherish them long after in my memory.afterglow-1024928__340