What if "no" is no problem for you, but "yes" is scary? What are you missing? Patricia Volk tries 12 months of accepting all invitations, challenges, and blind dates, and discovers that sometimes yes is more.
It's short, unequivocal, to the point. I say no at the drop of a hat. I'm good at saying no. I couch it as knowing what is good for me.
Then I have dinner with Louisa Ermelino.
Louisa works in publishing. Late one afternoon, her editor says: "Louisa, I'm the keynote speaker tonight and I've got a conflict. You have to help me out."
"I found myself on a stage," Louisa reports, "looking down at a sea of faces. I had no idea what I was going to say. Then it occurred to me: Louisa, you know more about this than they do. And I started talking. And it was fine."
"I would have said no," I say.
"And wound up at home in bed with a book."
"What's wrong with that?"
"You're not living," Louisa says. "You're in a cocoon. You're not stretching."
Stretching? I have to keep stretching? Haven't I stretched enough? Didn't I support a husband through medical school while going to night school and raising two kids? Haven't I earned reading in bed with a bowl of Grape-Nuts for dinner? Peace, my new drug of choice.
Louisa and I kiss goodnight. Heading uptown, I argue with ME:
ME: "What's so good about a book in bed? Since when don't you take chances?"
I: "I'm relieved about what I'm missing."
ME: "But what are you missing? How do you know?"
I like arguing with myself. Everyone's a winner. By the time the bus drops me off, I've made a decision. Starting tomorrow, for one year, I'll strike no from my vocabulary. Tomorrow morning begins the Year of Saying Yes.
Tim McHenry, an old pal, runs programming at the Rubin Museum of Art. "I'm doing a Friday night movie cabaret," he says. "How would you like to introduce a film?"
I'm not a film scholar. I call films movies.
"Sure," I say. Tim reads his list of esoteric films. None ring a bell till he gets to Viridiana. Viridiana was my first art house movie. It was life-changing, freshman year in college. Will it hold up?
It holds up. I research Buñuel, Franco, and fetishism. What's better than exploring what excites you, understanding what makes it work, then sharing that with like-minded people? The audience asks thought-provoking questions, and Tim presents me with the same kind of white silk scarf the Dalai Lama often wears.
Congratulations! It's a Book!
A new book coming out is like having a baby. No stretch marks, but it's yours to nurture. So yes to the Spencertown book fair in upstate New York even though it costs $210 to rent a car and I only sell one book. And yes to the Caltech Athenaeum High Tea, even though I spend more time flying to Pasadena than in Pasadena. And yes to talking to my friend Patti Rohrlich's book club. "I have a great idea," Patti says. "Since your novel deals with the importance of secrets, let's everybody tell a secret we've never told."
That night Patti asks me to go first. I tell a secret involving my ninth-grade boyfriend, Harry, that once seemed devastating. Tincture of time makes this secret hilarious. Or so I think. But the women sit there frozen. Finally somebody ventures, "Um, how old were you when that happened?" Nobody else will tell their secret. I sell 11 books. Broadway Debut
Martin Sage coproduces the Thalia Follies at Symphony Space. This month the theme is food.
"Would you write something for it?" Martin asks.
I write lyrics to "How About You?":
I miss the fudge at Schrafft's,
How about you?
And Luchow's roasted pork
Ribs at Ruby Foo's...
"Why don't you sing it?" Martin says.
Rehearsals begin with actors I've paid to see. The big night arrives! We share a dressing room! It's time for my Broadway debut! So what if it's Broadway and 95th Street! There are two shows, 6:30 and 8:30. I print the lyrics on a doily in case I forget them. During the second show, I'm so excited that my daughter's in the audience, I forget to look at the doily. I flub my lines. It doesn't matter. I read somewhere that when asked why he chose to spend his life on the stage, Sir Laurence Olivier replied by clapping. I get it.
Bennington's low-residency MFA writing program asks me to teach for one semester. I step out of the car into wall-to-wall faculty meetings. The program is beyond intense. It will be complete submersion for ten solid 14-hour days, with five 40-plus-page student packets arriving each month.
That first night I creep into bed. How can I get out of this? Say someone in the family had a heart attack? What am I doing here? I want to go home. I can't go home. In the morning, terror is replaced by raw excitement that doesn't let up for ten days of the most exciting, endorphin-fueled work I've ever done. The students are dazzling. I could easily have missed out on that. Last year I would have.
A Blind Date with a Famous Man
It's been decades since I've been on a blind date. The last one I had, I married. I know and like the Blind Date's work. And I have to say yes, yes?
He picks me up in my lobby. We're both wearing blue and white gingham shirts! He's funny! Cute, too, even if I'm taller and outweigh him. At brunch he gets sad talking about his late wife. He won't eat. Walking me home, he asks, "What are you afraid of?"
"I'm afraid I'll never see a man in his underwear again," I say.
Right there in the street, he yanks the tail of his belt and starts to unzip. I scream. He laughs and says, "Now, if you hadn't yelled so loud, you would have seen a man in his underwear."
This, I think, is a man I could like. We take the long way home, walking miles through Central Park. He raves about his new TV equipment, then offers to come up and check out mine.
Examining the jerry-rigged setup, he says: "Do you have some time?" We walk more miles to a Best Buy, where he discusses my case with a salesman. Then we walk more miles back and he writes it all down.
Three days later, an e-mail arrives. The Blind Date breaks up with me before we hold hands. If I ever upgrade my TV, I'll know just what to get. Iris Apfel
I'm invited to the final performance of Grey Gardens.
I loved this musical the first time I saw it. Why would I want to see it again?
Settling into my seat, I look to my left. There is Iris Apfel. I recently spent an afternoon in her closet. Iris Apfel is one of two living people to have a one-woman show of her clothes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I'm sitting next to the most creatively dressed woman in the world. Turns out Iris Apfel discount shops, too. We're going to the Woodbury Common outlet mall together, and I am putting myself completely in Iris Apfel's gorgeous, multi-ringed hands.
The year of yes isn't over yet. Looming is a kayak trip on the Hudson, cooking for a PEN fund-raiser, a hat-making class at FIT, an ashram with my sister, two speeches, and participation in New York City International Pickle Day. When Yes Year is up, will I go back to no and Grape-Nuts? Less. There isn't one thing I said yes to I'm sorry I said yes to. And look what I would have missed. "No" means safety and the numbing stasis that implies. I'm changed. The change has to do with the joy of being available to chance. There is a thrilling difference between being comfortable and being too comfortable. That difference makes you feel—there's no better word for it—radiant.
Patricia Volk is a frequent contributor to O and the author, most recently, of To My Dearest Friends (Vintage).