IMG_2481Give a Little Bit –  Supertramp (click to play)

“School sucks, but I always try to come on Wednesdays…”   That flaky statement sounds nothing like a measure of success, yet oddly for me it signifies a touching consummation and a surprising triumph of this past school year.


Summer vacation doesn’t mean much any more to an empty nester like me, but last August as my football coach was ramping up for another season and the summer days were waning, I found myself contemplating what I should do when school starts. It’s compulsive. Years of being one of those semi-annoying moms always flitting around their kids’ schools – planning carnivals, PTA-ing, room mothering, raising Ed Funds, and attending every school event – is so engrained in my psyche that I feel a wistful void when the first day of school rolls around. One balmy morning last summer with September lurking behind the fence, I was trying to enjoy my coffee-newspaper-beach-read routine in the backyard as sunlight filtered through the ivy leaves dangling lazily on the trellis overhead. Unadulterated relaxation – nothing to do, not a care in the world. Yet discontent and restlessness hung about, sure as the ivy leaves that would be dead and falling around me in a month or two. It seems I can only appreciate that free-as-a-bird feeling when I’ve accomplished something or have a worthwhile focus, and I instead was feeling adrift, pointless, unsettled – anything but relaxed. Listlessly scanning the newspaper, one headline suddenly buzzed my trigger words: Writing Coach Project Seeks More Volunteers.

Turns out, the nonprofit Community Alliance for Learning was planning to expand their WriterCoach Connection, a program that brings volunteers into the schools to work with students on improving their comprehension, writing,  and critical thinking skills. The program began in Berkeley in 2001 and later expanded to Oakland, Albany, and West Contra Costa schools. Richmond High School welcomed WriterCoach Connection in the fall of 2012 and was hoping to expand the program for its second year with more volunteer coaches. Hmmm… writing, education and working with at-risk youths was an enticing combination, and my online inquiry was met with an immediate enthusiastic response. You don’t need to be a writer or a teacher to work with this program – in fact, most of the volunteers simply enjoy interacting with kids. After extensive training, a classroom full of new volunteers was scheduled to work one-on-one with the ELD (English Language Development) students at Richmond High, ready or not. We were all a little nervous, wondering if we were capable of teaching, connecting, and building trust with these “hardened” teens. Wondering if safety at this “tough” school was going to be a concern. We didn’t know exactly what to expect, but here’s what I found: kids are kids, no matter where they live. No matter how they act, deep down there is a child who wants their life to count.


Every other Wednesday throughout the school year I trekked to a portable at Richmond High and worked one-on-one first with “Maria” and then “Sofia” or vice versa. I loved walking through the school grounds and hallways to the ELD classroom to pick up the students, partly to catch a glimpse of school life and partly to stroll ‘n chat with each girl on the way back to the portable. This was the trust-building time when we talked about anything but academics. The time when Maria told me how she and her mom spent the whole night looking for her cousin. How they finally found him in jail at 4:00 am. The time when Sofia told me that she broke up with her boyfriend because he was getting messed up in a gang. That she was suspended from school when this ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend beat the crap out of her (she fought back). How Maria’s family lost their house a few years ago. That Sofia’s father left the family and moved back to Mexico. How Maria always feels so tired and doesn’t have anywhere to study. That Sofia is so sick of taking care of her sister’s little kids that live with them. So many obstacles on the road to their dreams that they told me about as we worked on an essay about goals: Maria wants to be a psychologist to help people feel better, and Sofia wants to be a police officer to make things right in her town.

It was an interesting journey trying to balance my expectations with my students’ realities. I found that their smallest accomplishments became my greatest wins as a writing coach. The measures of success varied from week to week. Sometimes just jotting down the ideas from our brainstorming session was all we could manage. Other weeks, a completed outline, mind-map or hamburger organizer was a feat in itself. One of my favorite triumphs came as a complete surprise on the day we worked on a letter, essay or poem for someone special. Sofia wanted to write a poem for her mother but was convinced that she couldn’t do it. Instead, she started scribbling some of the things that she loves about her mamacita with the intent to turn those scribbles into an essay. It was magical to watch that series of sentences unfold and evolve into – ta da! – a lovely poem. Sofia’s surprised delight was my reward of the semester.


Once I realized that my girls would probably not be writing stellar essays – especially in a language that wasn’t spoken in their home – I modified my expectations for what we could accomplish in one class period. Both of my students were almost paralyzed, fearful or maybe just shy about putting pen to paper. But as I shared my own writing frustrations with them, their self-reliance grew. If I said it once, I said it one hundred times this year: “The hardest part is just getting started – for all of us!” It was heartwarming to watch their writing confidence grow, and as the school year progressed they were able to jump straight into their assignments with less and less prompting from me.

My proudest achievement of the school year came on the last day of coaching when Maria said, “School sucks, but I always try to come on Wednesdays so I can work with you.” If that’s what it takes to keep a kid in school, then by golly I’ll back for more coaching next September. Tears welled up when each of my girls asked if we could exchange phone numbers for the summer – tears of joy that they wanted to keep in touch and of sorrow that the program doesn’t allow that to happen. It was difficult to let go of my students and trust that they would somehow find ways to make their dreams come true. The best I could do was leave them with a card, so I made one for each – cute scrapbooky cards packed with inspirational quotes, words of encouragement and as many well wishes as one card can hold.

How do we measure success? Most certainly I gained more from coaching writing than my students did. When we begin new ventures, lofty expectations are invariably entailed. As the ventures take off, those grandiose dreams often crash into realities… and unless we ratchet down a few notches with the actual realm of possibilities, we are left soaring aimlessly above the clouds – alone and disillusioned. Championing causes of social justice, we imagine that we can change the world. Working with at-risk students, we hope to better lives and inspire academic achievements. So how do we measure success when the project is finished or the school year ends without these miraculous accomplishments – without feeling like a disenchanted failure? We adjust our expectations and find cause for celebracíon in the little things, that’s what we do. Success is not necessarily the perfect essay or even a job well done. Sometimes it’s just showing up on Wednesdays.


“If you help one community, one village, or one child, the effects can last for weeks, years, or even a lifetime, like a ripple on a still ocean that extends into the horizon. That’s how you change the world.” 

– Jim Ziolkowski (author of “Walk in Their Shoes: Can One Person Change the World?”)





Mokelumne Hill

Words (Between the Lines of Age) by Neil Young (click to play)

Guileless imposter crashes the writing party.

This was the Six-Word Bio that I wrote to introduce myself at the Gold Rush Writers Conference I attended last weekend. Thirty months into playing this game and I still feel like a rookie on the bench trying to make the team. The Sons of Anarchy bikers that roared up the main drag of Mokelumne Hill belonged at this retreat more than me, some pseudo-sophisticate suburb-dwelling wannabe. I continue to question: why do I want to rack myself with this angst-filled ambition? I didn’t grow up with the conviction that I was born to write – it just seemed like a fun thing to do with the second half of my life. Fun indeed.

There is one conviction I’ve acquired on this bumpy ride: Write a Book is not merely something to put on a bucket list and blithely check off after penning a prize-winning novel. Writing is an unsettling, self-loathing obsession. The more I learn, the more disoriented yet determined I become. Without fanfare, the salt-of-the-earth Calaveras County writing community pulled me off the bench and pushed me into the game to catch some tangible nuggets of truth about this complex craft. The ghost of Mark Twain would be tipping his cigar.

Cut the crap. I’ve been choking on words, gagging myself with unnecessary frippery. Just tell the story – plain and simple – so said the flash fiction teacher who challenged us to write a he-said-she-said dialogue, snap. For someone who loves to gab, flowing dialogue feels strangely elusive, but perhaps I’m making too much of it. Maybe good writing is like a well-made bed: wash the sheets so they smell like a summer breeze, tuck the corners in nice and neat, fluff the pillows a bit, and smooth a soft blanket on top. If it’s piled up with fancy cushions and quilts, it’s too much work just to crawl under the covers let alone sleep in it.

Leave the heavy lifting to the pros. I had scarcely embraced the mantra of brevity when along came a Jesus in glasses and brown blazer extolling the genius of Flaubert’s page-long sentences. What?? Turns out Jesus is a brilliant novelist and witty professor that made me want to go back to college and become a disciple of literature. Christian Kiefer showed us how richly-descriptive settings add dimension to the plot. He can get away with existential prose because he earned his Ph.D. in American Lit and because he’s one of those gifted artist souls – but most of us mere mortals cannot.

Even creativity needs a plan. I thought I would be one of those authors who does some research, sits down with a character, and starts writing to discover what kind of trouble their protagonist is going to get into. Then in waltzed a writing professor who taught us that an outline moves the story along much more efficiently than letting the characters dictate our telling. The clever author of  “Women of Ill Fame” altered my creative process when she put us on the spot to spend twenty minutes scribbling an outline for our novel. Oh no, I’m not ready! I assumed the research needed to come first, but voilà – a bona fide foundation for my story miraculously unfolded under pressure. Create the plan and the juices will flow while the research fills in the blanks.

Less is plenty. Enough is a mouthful. Let grandeur bubble forth from the sea of simplicity. And never fear if my blog appearances are sporadic – I’m just splashing around in a setting-plot-dialogue swamp, swimming to shore on occasion to catch my breath and spit out some choice words.


IMG_3619Slow Burn by Too Rude (click to play song)

Fires are burning wild… not in the parched California hills but in our overworked, undernourished bodies. Inflammation is rampant. A body riddled with accidents and sports injuries. A shoulder “frozen” after rotator cuff surgery. Stress wrecking havoc on moods, skin and digestion. Hormones fluctuating like crazy. Knees and hips tweaking out after being contorted behind a desk too long or perhaps from simply – dare I say it – aging. All this, in my health-conscious family alone. I can only imagine what’s aflame in the rest of humanity.

So much is made about inflammation, but really – what is it? Used properly, inflammation is a good thing – the body’s immune system jumping to action under attack. When an injury occurs or an infection sets in, the immune system sends out white blood cells to help trigger the healing process. When faced with emotional or psychological stress, adrenal glands kick in cortisol – the fight-or-flight hormone – to help dilate the blood vessels, forcing blood to the organs and tissues for battle. That’s Acute Inflammation, which is perfectly natural and quite helpful. You can see the visible signs of swelling and redness along with feeling the ache and congestion. But when our immune system and adrenals are in overdrive, the result is Chronic Inflammation, like the motor’s ON switch just won’t flip off, burning out the engine. These symptoms are less visible and can be difficult to identify as inflammation. Often it feels like a general malaise, while sometimes it’s the feeling that we’ve been hit by a Mack truck.

Chronic is when the inflammation sets up shop in the body and jams the healing mechanisms. Medical studies have proven that uncontrolled inflammation is a major factor in heart disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, cancer, asthma, Alzheimer’s disease, high blood pressure, and arthritis. It just may be the root of all bodily evils, and it seems like every fiendish spark fuels the fire. Stress and exhaustion, injury and overuse, infections and viruses, unhealthy diet and eating habits, lack of exercise and obesity, food allergies, hormone imbalances, environmental toxins… life on earth is fraught with burning perils.

So what can we do to extinguish the smoldering wildfires in our bodies?

  • Run like hell from the devil! White may look angelic, but in the food world it’s pure evil. Don’t stoke the flames with sugar, salt and refined grains like white bread, white rice and white pasta.
  • Create healthy eating habits: fuel your body with proper nutrients, add supplements when needed, and don’t skip meals. If we deprive ourselves of nourishing calories, our bodies go into survival mode – too weak to battle the fires.
  • Follow this flame-fighting pyramid diet fanatically when in chronic mode and casually when the burn cools:


Red Wine

Dark Chocolate


Omega 3,

Fish Oil, Probiotics,

Magnesium, Vitamin E


Turmeric, Curry, Garlic

Ginger, Cinnamon, Parsley

Rosemary, Green Tea with Local



Wild Alaskan Salmon

Tuna, Oysters, Sardines (try

the canned ones with flavored

marinades – they go down a little easier)


Skinless Poultry, Omega-3 Eggs, Tofu, Almond Milk

Greek Yogurt, Kefir

ESSENTIAL FATS (yes, really)

Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, Red Palm Oil, Flaxseed, Avocados



Any and all, especially organic


Steelcut Oatmeal, Quinoa, Bulgur Wheat, Brown and Wild Rice


Every Kind of Berries, Apples, Grapefruit


Broccoli, Kale, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Beets, Onions, Sweet Potatoes, Shitake and Maitaki Mushrooms

[Minimize these arsonists during intense inflammation:  alcohol, caffeine, dairy products, red meat, and “nightshade” veggies like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and white potatoes.]

  • Drink a cup of hot lemon water with a spoonful of local honey first thing in the morning. It helps to balance the bacteria in the digestive tract, staves off allergies, and contains antimicrobial properties to banish bad germs as well as ascorbic acid to boost the immune function. Ok, then you can follow it up with that cup of coffee so necessary for mental clarity and sanity.
  • Minimize exposure to toxic chemicals and harmful synthetics – embrace eco-friendly cleaning products, natural fibers, and organic anything.
  • Floss every day. Neglected gums equal inflammations waiting to ignite.
  • Exercise regularly. Walking is free and easy to do… the only excusable opt-out is slogging through a frigid Chicago winter… those bodies are working hard enough just to stay warm.
  • Coach Tony’s tried-and-true policy: ice those injuries (although admittedly I’m a chilly wimp who rarely follows this advice).
  • Refrain from popping excessive ibuprofen. It masks the inflammation, disabling the body’s natural abilities to heal. It also kills our detoxifying livers.
  • Douse the flames with plenty of water and Emergen-C – my answer to every physical ill.
  • Find shelter in the firestorm with yoga and meditation – my answer to everything.

It seems counter-intuitive to add heat to a fire, but one of the best ways to fight inflammation is with warm foods and hot soup. Tony makes the meanest flame-busting porridge with steelcut oatmeal, ground flaxseed, a handful of walnuts, a handful of blueberries and a good dousing of kefir… just about the coolest morning ritual a guy could have. And to follow that up, these are two of my favorite Anti-Inflammatory Soups:


4 c. water

3 c. spinach leaves

1/2 lb. snow peas, trimmed and halved

1 – 5  3/4 oz. package Pad Thai noodles

1 T. olive or red palm oil

1/4 c. thinly sliced shallots

8 oz. shitake mushrooms

1  1/2 t. curry powder

1/2 t. ground turmeric

1/2 t. ground coriander

2 t. red curry paste

2 garlic cloves, minced

8 – 10 c. chicken broth

1 – 13.5 oz. can light coconut milk

2  1/2 c. shredded cooked chicken breast (optional 1/2 lb. cooked shrimp, tails removed, or extra-firm tofu, cut into chunks and sautéd)

1/2 c. chopped green onions

2 T. stevia (sugar substitute)

2 T. fish sauce

1/2 c. chopped cilantro

1/4 t. crushed red peppers

7 lime wedges

Boil water in a large saucepan. Add spinach and peas – cook for 30 seconds. Remove veggies from pan with a slotted spoon and place in a large bowl. Add noodles to water – cook 3 minutes. Drain and add noodles to veggies in bowl.

Heat oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Sauté the shallots and shrooms for a few minutes. Add the next few ingredients through the garlic – sauté 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add chicken broth and bring to a boil. Add coconut milk, reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes. Add chicken (and shrimp/tofu if using), onions, stevia and fish sauce – cook for 2 minutes. Add noodle mixture; stir in cilantro and chili flakes. Serve with lime wedges.


2 -3 T. olive oil

1 onion, chopped

8 oz. shitake mushrooms

5 garlic cloves, minced

Heat oil and sauté onion, shrooms and garlic.

4 carrots, diced

4 celery stalks, diced

salt and pepper

Add carrots, celery and salt & pepper – sauté until soft.

2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cooked and shredded

12 – 16 c. chicken broth

2 – 3 T. turmeric

1 c. wild rice

Add chicken, broth, turmeric and rice – cook according to rice package directions.

1/4 c. chopped parsley

4 c. spinach leaves

Add parsley and spinach just before serving.

IMG_2178In reverberating validation, this cool placard literally leapt onto my lap as I was finishing my reflections on inflammation. During a recent visit to Denver – one of the great foodie cities – my daughter took us to lunch at True Food Kitchen where they serve up scrumptious, organic, über-healthy creations. Propped against a wall of aspen tree trunks, this sign at our table put an exclamation mark on everything I’ve been spouting off about here. Amazing when you put something out to the universe – the good and the bad – it all comes back at you.

Cool the burn, stay hydrated,

 and chillax, my hot-blooded friends.


photo-1Shoulder to Shoulder Around the Fire by Rogue Valley

It’s a game to play – like sampling pickled fish and buttered breads at a smörgåsbord – this trying on the shoulders of fellow train riders to conjure up a sense of community. Walk a mile in someone’s shoes to understand their plight, but sit in their posture to feel their soul, leastways their mood du jour. Train our shoulders – transform our perspectives.


Shoulders nudge, jostle, barge up the escalator as the train whistles its arrival. I stride onto the platform and through the train door, shoulders squared. Seated by the window, poised behind sunglasses, my eyes and imagination feel empowered to wander. The train lurches, and a stooped woman in a cardigan – burnt orange coming unraveled – stumbles in her treadless soles, nothing to stop her slide. Her hand grabs a pole just in time as she flops into a seat. The flop snaps her head down, and her eyes catch the tip of her big toe sticking out of her shoe. She wiggles it in time to the click clacking train as her body tries to sync, an ambiguous dance of the shoulders. The spastic movements wear her down, lulling her into a bowed trance. The train slows then lurches again and momentarily tugs her shoulders back, breathing a rush of fresh air into her deflated chest until the dull rhythm collapses her once again. It’s a tough start to the game – let alone life – thrown back on heels and bent in misery.

Across the aisle sits a grand dame of a woman. Her liver-spotted hands caress a hardback book with its paper jacket removed. Surreptitiously I study the pages – curious what she is reading – but she shifts the book away from my sight line as if I am a cheating schoolgirl trying to copy her paper. She reminds me of a past high school English teacher, and I find myself sneaking sideways glances at her severely-bunned hair that gives her a nice little facelift, the zebra reading glasses propped on her beakish nose, her gazellian neck perched on primly erect shoulders. I sit up straight and proper until she sends a scolding glance my way, sinking my posture like a prairie dog burrowing back into hiding. My opaque glasses suddenly feel transparent, eyes exposed like a note being passed in class, caught by the teacher.

Mercifully the train stops, and I aim my sheepish shades at an easier target: a hooded guy that drags onto the train and slouches into a deep corner seat. He pulls his hoodie over slunched head as sleep pushes his shoulders down, down, down until there is nothing more to see. My slumped reverie is suddenly rousted from the depths of my seat as three beanie boppin’ teens clamor through the sliding door from the car behind. Knit scarves adorn attitude shoulders while their janky chatter fills the train car, “…well I ain’t puttin’ up with his assclown pranks no more! He can just bounce his sorry ass back to the playground!” Raucous laughter yanks their heads back while middle-school bravado pulls their wings higher still – girl power in numbers.

I am riding tall on the arrogance of sass when an impeccably dressed man enters at the Civic Center station. Fine suit, dark glasses, supremely pinned-back shoulders, confidently out of place. Our concealed eyes meet and I hold my posture steady, no flinching but warily wondering why he is on this train. Incognito gangster, schmoozing politician, FBI agent hot on the trail, clandestine lover on his way to a rendezvous? My imagination has run away and I can look no more, even behind these worthless Chanel shades, willing my shoulders to settle on the neutral posture of a nearby tree hugger. The gray stubble of his beard blends with the plaid flannel of his shirt and the dust on his hiking shoes as his gaze focuses on nothing and everything in his realm, evoking a meditative trance that calms the air around. I pull my legs up onto my seat – pseudo lotus style – until the swarthy secret agent man looks askance, pinning me back once again.

The train car crowds up at the next stop, and passengers dangle from hanging loops that force shoulders back, creating a carful of swaying riders jockeying for position. A swaggering Giants-jerseyed teen takes the standing opportunity to grind up against his girlfriend’s backside – until the power of the prim English teacher’s gaze cuts him down, and he pretends that the train caught him off balance. With a wry smile for a fellow student in trouble, my shrouded eyes spy a lovely young lady with sad shoulders leaned against the railing. She smiles shyly back at me under her droop – seeming to see through my voyeuristic disguise. The mother in me wants to tell her, “Pin your shoulders back, honey. You’re so beautiful.” Is it a grieving heartbreak, a twisted parent, or simply a terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad day that afflicts her sweet shoulders? Her smile has lifted her posture ever so slightly, and now this mother wants to wrap my arms around her and press the place between her shoulder blades, easing the burden off her back.

At the Embarcadero station, the danglers dissipate while self-proclaimed Fat Boy and his entourage drift into the train car on a pungent weed waft. They cue up the music, and Fat Boy begins to dance for us, a skanky mesmerizing shoulder shrug of a dance, each shrug causing globulous fat blobs to ripple around his gyrating body – through left arm to chest to right arm and reverse, through back to bodacious booty, neck through bulging belly. Quite certain that my face is blushing, I try to hide behind my dark glasses but am hopelessly face-to-face with his gelatinous gut, impossibly riveted to the spectacle. My attempts to suppress a smile are futile with Fat Boy’s self-deprecating humor, his mocking come-hither look. My shaking shoulders betray me as his tidal waves of fat have turned my smile into ripples of silent giggles. He stops dancing and struts around to collect his tips, but none of the passengers – vigilant pinbacks nor comatose slouchers – throw a buck into Fat Boy’s foppish hat after his performance. Must not encourage those artistic smoke-induced shoulder shrugs on the train, and out puffs the entourage at the West Oakland station.

I wipe the smirk from my face and settle my gaze upon the innocence of twins clad in private-school plaid skirts, one bent over The Book Thief, the other bouncing in her seat, telling her father about her class science project, “…we’re studying the effects of electrolytes on the human body…” Watching her bobbing shoulders, I uneasily wonder if her body was part of today’s experiment. My darkened eyes roam to the passenger behind the twins, a sad sack traveling salesman – Willy Loman-esque – clad in a maroon corduroy sport coat and washed-out dockers. His scratched briefcase is plunked beside his scuffed brown shoes, and his forlorn shoulders hunch over a worn Jeffrey Archer paperback. The disappointment of his latest failed sales call hovers over him like a little gray rain cloud. My own slouchy shoulders want to hear his sorry pitch, perhaps buy a bottle of the miraculous cleaning fluid from his Mary Poppins carpet bag to add to the collection of potions under my kitchen sink that never seem to run out.

A dragon lady springs into view, red-tipped fingers tap tap tapping with a vengeance on her laptop – a scathing memo to her staff. Her shoulders are wound back much too tightly, poised to fly into action, to pounce upon her prey and spew her fire breath around the train car. My slouch has suddenly snapped to attention with the faint acrid scent of fire breath – burning rubber? Slowly but surely the smell of overtaxed brakes permeates the train car, and one by one shoulders perk up – all except the sleepy hooded man in the deep corner. At the 12th Street station, the sassy shouldered beanie bopper pops up and announces, “Girlfriends, I am getting the f**k off this stinky ass train!” Queen Beanie is right.  I’m getting the hell off too, and my shoulders follow her on high alert. The train car is flashing its yellow warning lights, and I realize that we are stranded in the middle of Oakland without even Fat Boy to entertain us. My boots clomp up and down alongside the track assessing the situation in my superpower sunglasses as riders begin to disembark from the smelly stalled train. My thrust-forward shoulders detect no imminent danger, so I clompity clomp to the front of the train and settle into a vacant seat, far away from the burning brake car. A miniature lady comes into focus, clutching her shiny orange pleather handbag that glints like a caution beacon beneath her threadbare coat, shoulders protecting it against snatchers, darting eyes ready to spot the nearest unattended bag or sharp-shouldered hooligan. Eventually the brakes cool, the yellow blinkers stop flashing, shoulders mobilize to load back on, and the train departs the station with the shiny orange purse still safely tucked in its wary owner’s little coat.

Scanning my new train car, I notice a nappy-headed boy sitting on a perfectly-coiffed blond lady’s lap – another trendy celebrity with her adopted son from Zimbabwe or Mozambique? The loquacious boy is talking to a pair of dapper old men in feathered fedoras sitting next to them. He wants to keep the conversation going, captivated by their dark wrinkled skin, their singsongy banter. Does he recognize a turn of phrase or perhaps a twinkle in the eye from somewhere long ago and faraway? They are laughing together and leaning forward, shoulders touching in simpatico. My shoulders lean in too, but I’m just an outsider eavesdropping behind these shades.

Across the way slumps a tired old couple melting into each other, shoulders curled into themselves – a perfect fit after all those years of spooning. Their arms are wrapped tightly around sacks of groceries, guarding their sustenance with their lives, conserving what precious little energy they have left in the day. In stark contrast, a jaunty young couple skips into the car with their backpacks and wheelies. They are from Germany, no maybe Switzerland or Sweden, and their effusive energy and indecipherable excitement about visiting California infects me with a contagious travel bug; I sling my yearning shoulders back, ready to hoist my imaginary knapsack and train around Europe like a carefree college coed.

My darkened eyes light upon a yoga teacher – or most likely a starry-eyed student – with a yoga mat flung over her mountain-posed shoulders, an air of serenity softly swirling ‘round her being. A cyclist wheels into the car and props his bike against the railing. He adjusts the bandana wrapped ‘round his head – no helmet – and the right leg of his pants tucked into a green striped sock and the earphone wires dangling over his shoulders. He nonchalantly sidles up to yoga girl, presumably to compare their nearly-matching sandalwood beaded bracelets. Instant karma connection at the Rockridge station. I don’t even need to lurk behind shades since they are oblivious to prying eyes, eyes only for each other at that moment in time. A bespectacled techie sits next to them with his shoulders tucked up tight under his ears yet crouched, hunkered down over his phone, thumbing his brainstorms or updating his neurotic status, engaged in the cyber world yet ignorant of the world beyond his own short sight.  I feel a headache coming on and quickly shift my gaze.

A wheelchaired young man rolls onto the train, shoulders pinned unnaturally back, smiling – the brightest in the car – glowing with the majesty of mobility. The mere motion of shoulder raising infuses a lightness of being and blitheness of spirit, and his wounded torso invokes a certain power of wisdom. I turn an invisible third eye on myself, feel the shift of my posture that has risen and fallen, taken on the persona of each rider, alternating hunched over, pinched back, hunched, pinched. I like the feeling of this immobile yet free man on wheels best of all. Infused with his unspoken goodwill, my shoulders pick me up and off the train, announcing “You have arrived your destination” – milk toasty safe and sound in my grateful stance.


Wedding 5:25:85 I Wanna Marry You by Bruce Springsteen (retro first wedding dance)

Wedding bells are ringing. We must be at “that age”, or rather our kids’ friends and friends’ kids are. Nary a week goes by that news of yet another recent engagement or wedding reaches our household. But closer to home – actually in the house, as they say – we are gearing up for the pending nuptials of my brother-in-law, just days away. My husband’s youngest brother has always been the consummate charming, incorrigible bachelor, and after 49 years he has finally not only embraced love but is committing to love. It took him almost five decades and the right woman at the perfect time to help him realize that life is better shared, both the good and the bad times. Such a momentous turning point deserves a tremendous celebration. It warms my heart that the institution of marriage is alive and well, and it’s given me pause and cause to think about my own marriage of 28+ years.

Back when our nest was full, Tony and I made an effort to “date” on a regular basis, once a week if we were lucky. No movie nights or elaborate plans necessary – we were happy with long lingering dinners to pull together our scattered lives. That was exactly what we needed to stay connected and keep the home fires burning brightly. Our nest is relatively empty now, and we have much more time together. The real effort has become making that time more meaningful and special. So we went on a “date” this weekend, once again just a simple dinner out, just the two of us. We bellied up to the bar while we waited for our table and were engaged by another couple out doing the same thing. Through our conversation with them, their passion for each other was quite evident, even after 19 years. It was the second marriage for both, and it became clear that they were each others’ saving graces after horrific pasts. We were amazed to learn that the husband (who by the way is 20 years her senior) has written a love note to his wife once a week for 19 years. She is the subject and keeper of 900 pages of amorous declarations of devotion! Such the epitome of romance, and a lovely legacy to leave for their family.

Alas, there is no such legacy in our marriage. It’s fair to say we are too busy living it to write about it. But as I am putting the finishing touches on my soon-to-be-sister-in-law’s bridal tea party and Tony is contemplating his best man toast, the subject of marriage has been first and foremost in our minds and hearts.

Marriage is like baseball. It may be a game of individual performances, but the real difference between winning and losing is not the sum total of each player’s stats but rather the team spirit and camaraderie that comes from everyone working together for the good of the whole. It’s not so much about keeping score as it is about bringing your best to the field every day and picking each other up when someone hits a slump. It’s about finding the fun, remembering what you love about the game, and being grateful that you actually get to spend your time doing something you enjoy so much. And like any game worth playing, you’ve got to follow the rules for maximum enjoyment…


1. Foster teamwork and camaraderie.

2. Play fair.

3. Never take each other or your love for granted.

4. Continue to go on dates.

5. Try something new together every so often.

6. Remember why you fell in love.

7. Embrace spontaneity and humor.

8. Celebrate the wins and the special days.

9. End an argument as soon as possible, and if someone has to win the battle, let it be your spouse.

10. Grow old – and laugh – together.

11. Choose to be happy.

12. Don’t yell at each other unless the house is on fire.

13. If you have to criticize, do it lovingly.

14. Respect each other and make your marriage a true partnership.

15. Forgive and forget.

16. Find fulfillment within yourself and take care of your own needs too.

17. Neglect the whole world if you must, but never each other.

18. At least once a day, say a kind word or a compliment to your spouse.

19. When you’ve done something wrong, admit it and ask for forgiveness.

20. Hold hands, with feeling.

21. Be willing to compromise and agree to disagree.

22. Compete to win the contest of generosity.

23. Look each other in the eyes when you talk.

24. Say “I love you”… lots and often.

Yes, I know this all may sound obvious, or worse, trite. But it really is that simple and that difficult. Those mandates are easy to follow once in a while, but to sustain them day in and day out for as long as you both shall live is the true challenge, the richest reward, and the best game in life.


WorryThe Age of Worry by John Mayer (click to play)

Worry is a thief

marauding, it robs the peace

from jaded mind

the joy from outstretched heart

the sleep from fitful nights

despoiling middling intentions

permeating consciousness infiltrating

the spiraled web of thoughts

hopelessly tangled

Granted, worry

is a giver benevolently

bestowing frown lines

panic attacks     bleeding ulcers

but mostly worry

takes, pillaging

the depths of vulnerability pouncing

upon the underbelly exposed

it wipes the shine

off determined sparkle

the twinkle from beseeching eyes

the gleam from wistful smile

leaving debris of smoldering

angst that slowly blankets

a silky ashen coat

silently smothered

Worry is a companion

unwelcome, always

lurking round murky corners

whispering unsettled barbs

haunting dream fragments

mirthless misery gnawing away

the semblance of serenity seeps

until the insidious poison is transfused

displacing, replacing

with realities inside the realm

comfortable calm within control

firmly grasped


By the dawn’s early light one morning in January 1991, Operation Desert Storm was fully blown and my third baby was in full bloom. Two bouncing toddlers clamored up my legs while I clutched the positive pregnancy stick. My tremendous joy was tempered by Good Morning America’s news report that the U.S. was now at war with Iraq because Saddam Hussein refused to remove his troops from Kuwait. With tears streaming down my face – slightly hormonal and obviously overwhelmed – I just wanted to scoop up my babies, grab my pregnant belly and run for the Malibu Canyon hills to bury my head in the proverbial sand. How could I bring another child into a world that seemed destined for global war? Mercifully the Persian Gulf War ended a few months later with “only” 148 American casualties, although the fighting killed a great many Iraqis, caused immense grief for many families, and unraveled a tangle of worry for ordinary citizens like myself.

A year later, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to trundle my babies off to the canyons again or cower in a closet, trapped as we were in the war zone of Los Angeles. An African-American named Rodney King was subjected to police brutality in LA, which led to a controversial tipping-point trial. When the four police officers were acquitted, brutal riots ensued. The 1992 LA Riots lasted for six days, killed 53 people, injured over two thousand, and caused over one billion dollars in property damage. Meanwhile, my plans to meet my husband in Seattle for his father’s sixtieth birthday bash were dashed – I was sick with worry, immobilized at the thought of battling my way to LAX and leaving our three little ones behind. The riots were confined to Los Angeles, but there was such a fine line between civilization and utter chaos that the despair spread deep into the suburbs until the National Guard was called in to quell the rioting.

Consummate worrying. Perhaps it’s a mothers’ curse – I honestly don’t remember worrying much until the responsibilities of parenthood set in, although that might just be selective memory. It could be a persnickety Virgo trait, brought on when our perfect scenario is shattered. Or most likely it’s just the way some of us are wired, fretting over any little thing. Really though – is there anyone out there who isn’t a worrier? Frankly, I’m worried that worry is just a human condition, something that every person with a pulse is subject to on a regular basis. And with good reason – there is much to stress about in this perilously complicated world.

Many times I worry about ridiculous things, things that have been said and done, come and gone, long forgotten, things that my better half would say “Let go already!” Things like stewing over the tomato-laden meal I recently served to my friend and her fiancé – two weeks after she told me that they hate tomatoes. How could I be so inconsiderate and forget such an obvious distaste? What kind of a friend am I? This type of worry really isn’t a big concern – more like a nagging hangnail that you just want to rip away, until you do and then you’ve really turned it into a bloody mess. Just let these hang, already.

Often I worry about things that need to be done, that endless to-do list, bills to be paid, errands to be run, people to be called, chapters to be written. This relentless litany is relatively easy to tune out by constructing my millionth to-do list and tackling it head-on, one to-do at a time. Chanting my mantra It will all get done allays this variety of consternation, no sweat… as long as I employ my dubious self-discipline.

Frequently I worry about the twists of fate that are beyond our control, the freak accidents that can’t be anticipated, the natural disasters that strike at random, the unexpected calamities that change lives forever. There was truly nothing I could have done to prevent those “There has been an accident” phone calls that I received a few times in my life. All I can do about this kind of anxiety is to say a lot of prayers and have a lot of faith that God and the guardian angels are paying attention…. and brace myself for the next call I hope never comes.

But most of all, I worry about The Big Picture, the overwhelming larger-than-life worries that dominate the news reports and headlines, that affect all of mankind and the very fate of our planet. You know what I’m talking about – ad naseum – unmanageable governments, precarious economics, growing unemployment, global warming, water shortages, widespread starvation, health crises, social injustices, gun control, senseless crimes, rampant terrorism, endless wars. What’s a simple-minded, just-wanna-be-happy-in-suburbia gal to do with this sort of distress?

Stay informed. Read. Digest bite-sized bits of information and leave the rest on the serving platter lest we overeat and vomit a bucket of worry. I recently discovered an amazing socio-biologist named Rebecca Costa who wrote The Watchman’s Rattle. In this intriguing book, she breaks down emerging trends and how they relate to human evolution, and she confronts our most pressing global issues in palatable portions. But Costa is no whiny worrier projecting the demise of civilization; rather, she offers insights and solutions that provoke big thoughts and inspire major change. Her well-researched evidence presents a vision that is hopeful and keeps my squirrelly worrying in check.

Heeding Costa’s rattle, I feel certain that there is more we can do than worry – we can overcome the daunting worries that threaten our very existence. Basically, our mental evolution hasn’t kept up with our technological evolution. The Watchman says that we have reached our cognitive threshold, and in order to break through that threshold and keep up with the growing complexities, we need to develop our insight. According to Costa, “… insight acts like normal problem-solving on steroids: It’s a lightning-fast, all-inclusive, powerful cognitive process that we are born with. Insight is not ‘weird science’ or some mystical experience but rather a naturally occurring physical function in every human brain.” It’s kind of like a spontaneous thought burst. Neuroscience research has made so many exciting discoveries about the power of our brains, but in the scheme of the Big Picture, I feel so inadequate and powerless to do anything worthwhile about the troubling issues. I certainly don’t have the knowledge to solve things like the carbon emissions debacle, but my brilliant engineering friend who is passionate about the environment is working on that very problem and just may have the breakthrough insight to a solution one day. Although collaboration among experts is a key factor in the Watchman’s analysis, there are things that each of us “ordinary” individuals can do to foster the breakthrough insights that will help humanity keep up with the increasingly complex conundrums of our information-overloaded world.

~ Promote advocacy instead of opposition. Opposition creates gridlock, while advocacy leads to solutions. Rather than negatively rejecting others’ ideas, let’s positively offer suggestions to collaborate on.

~ Condition our minds as well as our bodies. We all know how important physical fitness is to our well-being, but scientists have also discovered the incredible importance of brain fitness. It’s not enough to acquire knowledge – we need to be able to apply that knowledge to problem-solving. And it’s not enough to do a daily crossword puzzle – we need to challenge our minds in a wide variety of ways, just like we crosstrain our bodies. Play brain games, work while standing at a desk, use one new vocabulary word a day, go for a walk on uneven surfaces (surprisingly cognitively stimulating), learn a new dance, brush your teeth left-handed, do a Sudoku puzzle instead of a crossword puzzle, take a yoga class on paddle boards like some of my friends recently did, or pick up a foreign language like my friend is doing so she can speak with her future in-laws from Spain. Wow, just the acquisition of Spanish in-laws is enough to hyper-stimulate any American mother’s brain!

~ Fuel the neurotransmitters of our brains with high-octane amino acids, antioxidents, dopamine, vitamins, and Omega-3 fatty acids. Power down salmon, blueberries, green tea, walnuts, dark chocolate, B-complex and potassium multi-vitamins… and lots of water.

~ Sleep. For someone who used to pride herself on surviving with five hours of sleep a night, I have become a broken-record advocate for a solid eight hours. It’s the only chance our minds have to organize and make sense out of the myriad of experiences in our lives.

~ Curb our personal complexities. In a world filled with too many choices, too many cool things, and too much information, let’s streamline our lives to create time and space to think with focus and intent. Instead of buying more products, adding more goals, and increasing our commitments, let’s follow Willie Wonka’s advice and just “Stop the boat!” We need to make time for our minds to rest, daydream, and simply be present in the moment. The unconscious mind is a lot more powerful than our conscious mind… that’s where great epiphanies come from.

I finished reading The Watchman’s Rattle on a sunny Sunday afternoon, feeling hopeful about humanity’s ability to think our way out of the gridlock of problems we face. I also felt determined to stop worrying so much and start conditioning my brain to insight-ready fitness. But a funny thing happened later that night. I stayed up until 2:00 am finishing a gripping new novel about the Indian hunting grounds and oil fields of Texas called The Son by Philipp Meyer. This saga about a family dynasty spanning five generations gets my vote for a Pulitzer Prize, and I simply couldn’t put it down even though I was heading into the jungle of sleep deprivation. As I let my mind roam and range across the American plains, I suddenly had an epiphany. One of the family matriarchs bemoaned her spoiled children’s lack of purpose in life, and these words jumped out at me: “Of course you wanted your children to have it better than you had. But at what point was it not better at all? People needed something to worry about or they would destroy themselves…”

How pointless would life be without worry? It’s a very good thing that we care enough about people and issues to worry our brains. Worry itself just may push us over the cognitive threshold, as long as we don’t become immobilized with fear and gridlock. So go ahead and worry… and then clear the deck to a clean slate. I’m busy worrying my way to a buffed-out brain!

“Chance favors the prepared mind.”

~ Louis Pasteur

For more stimulating thoughts, check out these interesting brain-teasing websites:  ~  a health club for your brain  ~  a wealth of information about brain science and keeping your mind sharp  ~  neurobics circuit training  ~  scientific brain training games  ~  more brain training exercises  ~  brain fitness for the AARP gang  ~  software programs to build literacy and brain power in students


Yoga GolfLaughing Buddha by Soulfood

One sweltering afternoon in my twelfth summer, I flipped on our brand new color television set. The 1972 broadcast offerings were scant, and I clicked the dial round and round and round looking for something – anything besides Gilligan’s Island – to watch. Each time the PBS channel clicked by, there was a strange woman seated cross-legged on the floor. Her dark hair hung in a long fat braid, and a crazy orange leotard with a curious symbol on the chest covered her body from neck to wrist to ankle. Her voice was mesmerizing, and I finally stopped turning the dial to check out the weirdness of it all. “Lilias” seemed to be leading some sort of an exercise class, but she peppered her instructions with foreign words and ended the show with her hands clasped like a prayer and her head serenely bowed. She talked about burning incense and meditating, and it was so hippy-dippy freaky to my twelve-year-old mind that I flipped off the tv with a scoff and some eye rolling as only a pre-teen can do. Over the next few years, I stumbled upon that show every once in a while – remember, there wasn’t a lot on the tube – and it was intriguing enough to make a lasting impression about that mystical thing called yoga.

I guess you could say I’ve been a lifelong student of yoga, although it’s been a series of fits and starts. In the 80’s I bought a couple of books to learn about yoga, and by the 90’s it had become mainstream enough to find a local studio without having to go underground and run the risk of looking like a new-age woo-woo. I have listened and learned from some wonderfully inspirational yoga teachers at studios around the country, at yoga retreats and conferences, at the Sivananda Yoga Farm, and now at YogaWorks’ array of classes. I will probably never be a true yogi, but I continue to enrich my practice and to strive for that state of nirvana that gurus embody.

Golf was another foreign mystery in my growing-up years. Oh sure, large green swathes cut across the Arizona desert where I laughed at the silver-haired snow birds driving around in funny little cars swinging silver sticks at tiny white balls. Clearly they had nothing better to do with all that leisure world time, so I thought. I wasn’t a country club kid like my better half, although he will tell you that he wasn’t either. His father once entered Tony and his two older brothers in a club tournament where they wound up securing the last three slots on the leader board. Without flinching, they beat a hasty retreat back to their strongholds of the football field and the baseball diamond.

As we age, we often begin to embrace those things we once scorned. Whether our bodies tire just enough to appreciate the nuances of a slower pace or whether our minds mature enough to focus on mental clarity and cerebral bliss, activities such as yoga and golf become central to our being and teach us things about living a joyful, well-intentioned existence.

** Life is a game to played, not a contest to be won. Yoga is not meant to be competitive, although hot yoga certainly feels like a battle sometimes. It’s important to find an inner or outer focal point instead of letting our eyes wander around the room checking out the quality of our fellow students’ handstands to see who’s winning. Similarly, although golf is competitive, the primary competition is against oneself. I may be trying to improve my putting, develop a better chip shot, or hit a longer drive, but the primary goal for me is smoothing my swing until it feels like second nature – not winning the club championship.

** Take the time to marinade your mind. Holding challenging yoga poses by finding one point of focus or easing into shivasana (aka total relaxation) by completely letting go, it is immensely beneficial to let your mind steep like a giant tea bag, gently bringing out the rich, bold flavors locked within. While the yoga mat can take you deep within yourself, the golf course challenges you to look far beyond. Walking the rolling hills and taking in the artful vistas of a golf course can be truly mind-expanding, like a moving meditation. As a plus, nature’s majesty helps to take your mind off the frustrations that stem from the inconsistencies of the game.

** Have fun and don’t be too serious. The practice of yoga puts our bodies in some very compromising positions. It’s easy to feel like a wobbly weeble when balancing in one-legged King Dancer Pose, so when I feel myself toppling over it’s ok to smirk, even snicker a bit. In our most exposed state – lying on our backs with our crotches vulnerably stuck up in the air as we grab our feet and rock side to side – we can’t help but feel amused by the silliness of Happy Baby pose. One of the primary reasons I chose to marry my husband is because he never fails to make me laugh. Tony has taught me the humorous subtleties of golf etiquette and the pleasures of spending an afternoon chasing after balls. And I have shared so many moments of hysterical laughter with my simpatico partner as she and I learned the game together from the ground up, dodging each other’s hack shots as we rolled. If we took ourselves seriously, we would have quit playing long ago.

** Preparation is the key. The surest ways to ruin a good yoga class are scrambling to gather props while rushing in late, despairing for a potty break in the middle of the workout, and trying to suppress a tickly cough during shivasana. That’s why I always make sure I get there with plenty of time to settle in for a few moments of meditation, and I always have cough drops in my yoga bag in case of a sneak attack. And get this – I always play my best golf when I do a little yoga before I hit the course.

** Lose the inhibition.  Let’s face it – yoga is pretty weird, especially with a playful teacher. Sometimes we find ourselves waggling our fannies in a funky Down Dog, sticking our tongues out as far as we can in Lion’s Breath, and falling flat on our faces in Crow Pose. We just have to dare to be silly, to heck with our image. Furthermore, I certainly can’t worry what I look like when I’m addressing the ball on the first tee box with three golf partners and everyone on the driving range watching. When I think about who might be watching me, I invariably shank it or hook it or god forbid whiff the ball. In actuality, not many people are ever watching me, except in my imagination, so I have to remind myself to stop worrying and just let it rip.

** Avoid comparisons. Yesterday I kept sneaking peeks at a fellow yogi in class, despite my best intention to stay focused. She had the most gracefully athletic body, and her yoga practice was poetry in motion. I was bemoaning the fact that my practice will never be as beautiful as hers, partly because I will never be thirty years old again (damn). I consoled myself by thinking that I have the wisdom that comes with age, but that comparison paled in the bright glow of her beaming face. Who needs wisdom when you’ve got bliss? Comparisons are completely wasted in golf games as well. Handicaps take care of that by leveling the playing field. All we really need to do is play our own best game.

** Work hard and then reap the rewards. Without a doubt, the best part of yoga is a well-deserved shivasana. Sprawled out on your back with the sweat cooling off your steaming Corpse Pose is nothing short of restorative. Any yoga teacher worth her salt will tell you that shivasana is the most therapeutic benefit of the practice. Likewise, the 19th hole is either the best reward for a round well played or the most potent remedy for a lousy game.

** Respect others and be willing to adjust to the surroundings. I love my personal space. I always get to yoga class early to set up my perfect little territory. But every so often the class packs in, spoiling my peaceful reverie. Suddenly our mats are touching, I’m brushing up against the calloused heel of the woman who badly needs a pedicure, and ick – the hairy guy next to me is dripping sweat on my mat.  Here is where I learn to let go and embrace that sense of oneness with humanity, in all its unattractive glory. Fortunately there is lot of open space on a golf course, so the only thing I worry about there is staying in bounds, staying out of the sand traps, and not conking a fellow golfer in their personal space. The secret to bliss is being aware of everything around us, up close and far away – and then tuning it out.

** It’s the little things that matter the most. It may seem like yoga is all about achieving the perfect poses, but the true discipline and fulfillment comes from the moments in between the poses. Smoothly transitioning from one pose to the next is profoundly satisfying – kind of like savoring those peaceful little nothing moments in our day. On the same note, one of my favorite things about golf is simply walking from one swing to the next. It gives me a chance to shake off a bad hack or savor a well-hit shot, revel in the great outdoors, and simply breathe.

** Just breathe. There is nothing like a few satisfying deep breaths to make anything and everything feel better. And there is truly nothing like yoga to instill the techniques and benefits of focused breath. Golf, on the other hand, does nothing to instill good breathing. In fact, I often find myself actually holding my breath when I address the ball. But if I am consciously in the moment, I remind myself to just breathe, which never fails to loosen my swing and better my shot.

** In the face of adversity, smile. When struggling through a difficult yoga pose, forcing out a smile has the amazing effect of activating our chi and opening up our energy channels – really! Even copping a grimacing smile after the five swings it took to blast out of a sand trap softens the angst just a bit. And that’s not new-age woo-woo – that’s just consciously working on being happy.

Such are the life lessons from my secret yoga… not the practice that everyone around me sees, but the one that goes on inside my head.  The practice of yoga is like pouring a bucket of pure sparkling water over my brain – it is suddenly clarifying and helps me to see things in a fresh new light, illuminating thoughts and enhancing positivity.  There are always negative forces in the world that seek to disrupt our game and mess with our mojo. But don’t let that bad old happiness hijacker jump in your cart or lie on your mat – just wave him off with a knowing grin and a heartfelt Namaste.


WilburBless the Beasts and the Children by Shirley Bassey (click to play song)

“What a night! Never have I seen such leavings! Everything well ripened, seasoned with the passage of time and the heat of the day. Oh it was rich, my friends. Rich!” crowed Templeton the Rat to his buddies Wilbur and Charlotte of the Web.

Scavengers and all, we are the keepers and protectors of this abundant planet, for without the spoils of land, air, vegetation and wildlife, we humans would cease to exist. It is a daunting responsibility, utterly overwhelming in fact, and one is inclined to throw hands up in desperate surrender. But still I try, to live at peace with my little patch of the world, to preserve nature in my own backyard that is intermingled with the wild side of life. From the day we took ownership of our property in the Bay Area, we have battled the forces of nature, seeking common ground on which we can all live together in harmonious bliss. I try to make like Albert Einstein “Our task must be to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty” and like Sitting Bull “Every seed is awakened and so has all animal life. It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being and we therefore yield to our neighbors, even our animal neighbors, the same right as ourselves, to inhabit this land.” But it’s my bad that these well-intentioned ideals are a constant source of frustration as a homeowner, gardener, and nature lover.

A meandering creek nestles up one side of our yard while oak-studded hills anchor the back. Wild life abounds. Moles and gophers tunnel under our garden beds, gnawing through tree roots and sucking down flowers as they go. Raccoons peel back the lawn, searching for midnight grubby snacks. Squirrels race around the tree branches, tearing up leaves, scarfing down berries, and generally leaving a mess in their wake. Birds insist on nesting above the outdoor speakers tucked under the eaves (despite our best efforts with wire mesh barriers), yielding their droppings on patio and furniture. Deer graze through our shrubbery, nipping off the choicest buds and blossoms. We have learned to live with all of these confounded critters and sometimes even beat them at their own games with humane tricks. But I simply can’t live with the rascally rats, and just when we think we’ve gotten the best of them, they weasel their way back into the game.

In the land of make-believe, I’ve always had a fondness for little rodents. Stuart Little, The Three Blind Mice, Templeton, Angellina Ballerina, Tom’s friend Jerry, Mickey and Minnie, Mighty Mouse, American Tale’s Fivel, Ratatouille, and the most bodaciously gnarly rodent of all: the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ sensai Splinter. If all rats were as cool as Master Splinter, I could sit in cross-legged lotus position among God’s creatures all day long.  But that’s about as far as my affinity for rodents goes. My only touchy-feely rodent interaction was decades ago with my friend’s three pet rats. As “sweet” as she claimed they were, I always got a bad case of the heeby-jeebies around them and could barely bring myself to lay a loving finger on them. So when we moved into our house “in the country” twenty-two years ago, you can imagine my chagrined surprise to find a little family already occupying our new home.

The first sign of our country mice tenants were innocuous little pellets in the kitchen cabinets. “If a man aspires towards a righteous life, his first act of abstinence is from injury to animals.” Sorry Mr. Einstein, but I just can’t be righteous with rodents in my house. After I finished having a freak-out tantrum, I scrubbed down everything and set out a series of mouse traps like that old childhood board game. The traps were relatively effective, and we had our first up-close-and-personal mouse encounter the very next morning. One of the snap traps caught a mouse by the tail, but the wily little critter had squirmed his way under the kitchen pantry door and was trying to pry the trap off his tail. When I came downstairs for breakfast with my babies toddling behind, we were greeted by a frantic mouse staring up at us, caught in his daring escape act. He really began to scramble when my little warrior son grabbed his Peter Pan sword to wage a battle with “The Rat King” a la The Nutcracker. Fearing that Mac’s parrying moves would actually aid the mouse in his escape, I grabbed a sticky mouse pad from my maze of traps and threw it on the ground in front of the rat king. The poor little fellow promptly flailed himself upon the pad like it was a life raft. There he stuck, peering up at us in a quiet frenzy, with the realization that he was now truly trapped. We solemnly ate our breakfast cereal, watching the mouse become irreparably glued to the pad with each little move. I quickly made an appointment with the Orkin Man for 2:00, packed the kids up for a day in the park, and fled the scene of the crime. That afternoon Mr. Orkin introduced us to the more humane “hotel traps” where the mice check in and can’t check out, which effectively evicted our unwanted tenants with minimal trauma.

If we thought that was the end of our problems with little squatters, we were sorely mistaken. In fact, my husband nearly suffered a panic attack at the hands of a furry scallywag. One early morning on his way to work, Tony entered the dark garage and hit the opener. The light clicked on as the garage door chain roared into motion, startling a large roof rat that was resting in the rafters. The sharp-toothed rodent hurled himself to safety – straight at Tony in a daring airborne attack. Armed with his gym bag, my rat-fearing warrior deflected the attack with his makeshift shield, and the rat fell to the floor in a tumbled heap. As the rat’s claws scrittered the ground around Tony’s feet trying to gain traction like some silly cartoon character, my fearsome giant-of-a-husband did a desperate little tap dance to avoid the dreaded beast. Somehow Tony braved his way to the shelter of his car, only to discover that his windows were rolled down. He drove to work with the nagging paranoia that rats were preparing a sneak attack from the back seat, and he called me the moment he reached his office refuge to inform me that he would not be coming home until I had a date with Mr. Orkin once again. You can be sure the garage was properly booby-trapped before dinner time.

Since then it’s been a fairly blissful, rodent-free time in our lives, aside from the occasional poor rat who tries to make his home under our house. But recently I had the gnawing feeling that we were under siege again… this time in the vegetable garden that Haley and I have toiled in for months. It began with the disappearance of a few nearly-ripe cucumbers and zucchinis. What the devil? But when I discovered a half-eaten spaghetti squash, I knew it was time for warfare once again. Out came the snap traps – no more humane Ghandi-esque live-and-let-live ideals. We worked too hard to lose our entire crop. I set the traps up high enough to spare the noses and paws of our beloved golden pups and was vindicated when we caught our first rat a couple of days later. My perverse glee was dashed the next day when we killed a sweet little bird in one of the traps. I don’t mind killing a rat, but an innocent albeit messy bird was just too cruel. It was time to get creative like real farmers. Scarecrows? Owls! After researching the subject, I learned that barn owls are an environmentally-friendly circle-of-life kind of way to help even the score and balance the prolific rodent population with the rest of the animal kingdom. I found a great website  that sells barn owl nest boxes, determined the prime placement for three of these birdhouses, and made plans to install them to attract these most excellent rat catchers.

Ah, but rats aren’t the only scoundrels in the animal world. One morning when my daughter was outside enjoying her coffee over a textbook, she noticed our golden retriever Eddie nonchalantly meandering along the path to the Back Forty veggie garden. Sly as a detective, Haley gave Eddie just enough time to get into whatever mischief he had in mind, and then she crept into the guesthouse to spy on him out the back window. And there he was, that furry yellow-faced rascal, nibbling away on a perfectly ripe zucchini. Sometimes the real culprits are our own best friends. With a few adjustments like some sturdy fencing and netting, we have peace in the garden once again. But since all is fair in love and war, I still intend to install a couple of barn owl houses for good measure. You just never can trust those rats and scoundrels.


IMG_3177Lost In My Mind by Head and the Heart (click to play song)

Procrastination… the very word immobilizes. Or perhaps it simply ignites creativity, diverting attention from the task at hand. As incorrigible jamjobbers, we procrastinators attempt to cram a little bit of everything into each day, enjoying the interesting activities and avoiding the difficult chores. Perhaps because of the belief – however misguided – that our best work is done under pressure, we take the tedious jobs down to the wire. And quite possibly some of us have a slight perfectionist neurosis that begets the intense need to establish the ideal setting in which to do our work – before any work can be done. Dillydalliers like myself possess the annoyingly delightful talent for devising captivating distractions.

Most of the disturbances that sidetrack my writing career are self-inflicted. It helps to remind this procrastinating author that Ernest Hemingway sequestered himself in a dank little hole in the wall when he had all of Paris beckoning, and J.K. Rowling began the Harry Potter saga in relative poverty. On the flipside, I am envious of my writing friend who has been living a lovely, inspired life in Provence ( Yet even she admits to struggles in finding time to write, just as I do languishing away here in suburbia. The message is obvious: it’s not about the place or the setting… it’s
about the driving force. All that is needed is the dream, the motivation, and the stick-to-it-ness to accomplish our goals, be they writing a novel, fabricating the next great invention, assembling family photos for posterity, or solving the global warming dilemma. There is good deal of discipline involved in this JOB of writing, and the procrastinator in me is disturbed by my lack of focus, feeling like a dusty little moth banging around the lampshades in the dark, seeking that flicker of light to settle upon. It’s time for an intervention Five-Step Procrastinator’s Program to save my job as a writer.

Step 1 – Change the way of thinking about writing from a fun diversion to a vital constant. This alone could take years to crystallize. They say it takes 21 days to become entrenched in a habit, but this regimen could be a never-ending challenge in my book of life.

Step 2 – Determine the time commitment to writing. Knowing this project requires at least three hours a day is one thing, but finding and making the time that fits my lifestyle is tricky. Hearing about authors who have written their novels in the wee hours of the morning, the darkness of the night, or after a full day of work, I am shamed that I can’t seem to carve out three measly hours in a bright shiny day. At the risk of sounding like a shallow slacker, I will not divulge the frivolous time constraints of my daily routine. Suffice it to say that mornings are busy and afternoons are less creative. And I am trying to practice what I preach to get that full eight hours of sleep (reference The Cure post), so those sublime midnight hours are not an option. After much consideration, I decided to split the difference by click-clacking away in seclusion for the first ninety minutes of my day and then jumping back into it for ninety minutes mid-afternoon. I can roll with that compromise, and it seemed to be chugging along just dandy until my little train derailed several months ago.

IMG_2942Step 3 – Set up the workspace. I’m a bit of a neat freak – clutter frazzles my mind – and yet my desk in the command center of the house often becomes a dumping ground, fraught with a myriad of distractions. The backseat of my car would be a more suitable place to pen that novel, even amidst the dog hairs, canvas grocery sacks, and go-backs. Just lock me away in a windowless gray box and let the colors of my mind light up the walls and fill the blank pages of my imaginary book. Eureka – my son’s bedroom has been in a state of flux since he left for college seven years ago. What better place to contain my own transitions? Before Mac moved out, he painted the walls a soothing shade of gray-blue at my request. Then we hauled out his beat-up sticker-encrusted desk that bore the brunt of his homework angst and brought in a large square waist-high project table, big enough to organize a hodgepodge of undertakings. Mac’s room morphed into The Project Room when it became apparent that my fiercely independent son would never move back home, and I filled his shelves with my paraphernalia. A few months ago I rearranged the photos in the room, clearing the entire wall behind the project table for grandiose plans: the timeline for my novel, the visual organization of my plot and subplots, the backdrop for my characters’ development. Lofty, yes. But here is where the persnickety procrastinator rears her wily head. I can’t just stick things on the lofty wall. And I don’t want just any old bulletin board. No, I have to re-create the swell wine cork wall featured in Sunset magazine and Pinterest (yet another captivating distraction). Oh, and I can’t possibly concentrate on writing with that pile of boxes under the table, which contain my half-finished scrapbook of last summer’s European family vacation. Oh for gods sakes. Projects are undermining the life of my book.

Step 4 – Prioritize activities and make time for the top of the list on down. In addition to being a neat freak, I’m a bit of an organization nut with a love of calendars and to-do lists, admittedly sometimes spending more time organizing than actually doing. This should be the easiest step of all – a matter of scheduling my days, plugging in the writing first and fitting in everything else around it. To be sure, I will pencil in plenty of time interlaced with the writing to share morning coffee and evening wine with Tony, watch Downton Abby with Haley, phone converse with Mac on his way home from work, live vicariously through my college coed Sammi, hike with my dogs, get lost reading books, tend to my sprawling garden, hone my struggling golf game, recharge body and soul with yoga, volunteer my services, and make merry with friends and family. Mercy. There may not be any time remaining for the necessary chores, but my priorities are certainly aligned.

Step 5 – Be accountable. Until I reach that author’s state of nirvana with an agent and a publisher hounding me for my manuscript when the deadline has past, there is no boss to dispense a performance review, no time clock to punch. It is entirely up to me, myself and my dodgy self-discipline. Perhaps Coach Haertl needs to blow the whistle on me when I run afoul of the game rules. Or I could employ a couple of time management apps like that would lock me out of the internet for a specified block of time to prevent cyber distractions. Better yet, I have found that the least intrusive solution is simply to set a timer to remind me to stick to the program. Since I tend to get thoroughly immersed in a project and lose all track of time, the chirping crickets and Tibetan gongs gently prod me on to the next diversion on the daily agenda.

Fortunately, most procrastinating distractions are of our own making. When Tony and I agreed to open our outdoor home for the local fundraising Garden Tour in May, I buried myself alive with gardening chores for the five weeks beforehand, with nary a written word much less a blog or chapter penned. By the time the Garden Tour was successfully finished, I was eager for a lockdown at my writing desk.

But every once in a while those unexpected twists of fate occur that divert us from our best-laid plans. Two days after the Garden Tour, our son was in a dreadful car accident in Mobile, Alabama – 771 miles away from his Chicago home and 1,991 miles away from our home. We flew him back here after six days in the hospital for what became a two-month recuperation. This twist-of-fate diversion effectively immobilized my writing endeavors as my priorities list drastically shuffled into survival mode. Caregiving and nurturing my son, I was saturated – near drowning – with gratitude. The predominant item on my to-do list was simply making the most of this blessing-in-disguise by spending every precious moment with him, knowing that the writing career could wait while my son finally moved home, if only to temporarily convalesce in The Project Room. At any given moment, a rousing game of gin rummy with Mac was my #1 to-do.

Take heart, fellow jamjobbers. Procrastination is merely the fluidly shifting act of prioritizing.



Garden BlessingsDraggin’ the Line by Tommy James & The Shondells (click to play)

“Look at the popcorn trees, Momma!” exclaimed my three-year-old as she scrambled out of bed and up the windowsill. The white blossoms popping on the branches peeked into her second-story window like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, reflecting astonishment in her baby blue eyes. “We can eat the trees! Let’s go pick some popcorn!” On that magical spring morning eighteen years ago, the wonder of nature sprang forth and lured me down the ubiquitous garden path that has beckoned throughout my life.

It was predestined, I suppose. My father was raised on a farm, and although he shunned that life as a young adult, gardening is deeply embedded in his heart. It must be a recessive gene in my DNA, however, because I was not naturally drawn to the care and keeping of plants. Nor was I particularly excited about visiting my uncle’s farm during childhood vacations – the pigs were stinking muddy, the chickens were pecking mean, and the fields were sweltering dusty. But I remember how savory the sun-ripened tomatoes tasted, sprinkled with a little salt. And I recollect some lively watermelon seed spitting contests with the cousins, mouthwatering juice dripping down our chins. At home, helping my dad in our backyard garden seemed more of a chore than a delight. My horticulture career died on the vine one hot summer day when I picked a basket of peppers and ran howling to the nearest water hose after rubbing my eyes with fiery chili-stained fingers. I steered clear of the pepper patch after that, and I finagled my way out of most of the yard work with the blessing of a Bermuda grass allergy. But oh, the fruit trees were glorious, and they nudged me down the garden path ever so gently. Playing under the orange tree with its heady scent was intoxicating as we sipped nectar from the little fairy teacup blossoms. And breaking in the middle of kick-the-can games to pluck a few figs fresh off the tree after they had been warmed to juicy perfection in the afternoon sun was pure harvest nirvana.

Unfortunately, my interest in plants shriveled to dormancy after its brief childhood debut.  Teenage life in the 1970’s was consumed with the cultivation of friends, and I was much more inclined to munch on slices of pizza at the local parlor or wolf down burgers at the trendy new McDonalds rather than nibble veggies off the vine. The material 1980’s were spent wining and dining with nary a garden bed in sight. Perhaps it was buying our first house as a young married couple that renewed my appreciation for vegetation. Succulent ice plants proliferated around the pool in our Southern California backyard, and my gardening prowess grew as I trimmed those exuberant vines like a squatter in the rice paddies during my childbearing years. Nurturing patio pots that exploded with flowers was a tranquil respite from juggling three rambunctious babies. The zen of gardening began to whisper in my ears.

Those whispers in transition to becoming a gardener spoke a little more insistently when we moved to Northern California, home to the revolutionary foodie Alice Waters. She planted the seeds of enlightenment in the 1990’s as the organic farm-to-table food movement was taking root in the East Bay’s fertile ground. Yet still I did not embrace the grow-your-own concept like two of my friends who rented plots in a community garden and raised their toddlers alongside their crops. Instead, my husband and I were wrestling with our unruly backyard that needed a hefty dose of nourishment. We yanked out dying plants, lumbered around the sprawling grounds with wheelbarrows of mulch, and attacked the rocky soil with hoes. We shoveled drought-tolerant plants into the hillside only to wake up to the demure deer munching our hard work down to the roots. This went on for eight years until we decided to stop fighting with the flora and fauna by hiring professional landscapers for a complete overhaul of our outdoor hang-out. Suddenly I discovered the true meditative quality of gardening, tapping into a soulful peace as I meandered through the paths and hideaways of our revamped yard. But the most surprising transformation evolved from the vegetable patch we carved out of the back forty behind the cabana. For a decade I dabbled with a variety of veggies, but the only real success came from the Italian section of tomatoes and herbs. My culinary specialty was tomatoes-basil-mozzarella drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar – scrumptious but not much variety.

This caliber of gardening might have continued for the rest of my life if not for my popcorn-tree daughter and farming papa. It is amazing how your children and parents can collectively instigate the most profound evolutions. My daughter moved back home after college with a genuine interest in our back forty at the same time that my folks came to visit last fall, and the sprouts of my gardening life received a rejuvenating blast of fertilizer. We found ourselves making plans for a winter vegetable patch – me, an avowed fair-weather gardener. With my father’s expertise, we planted lettuce, arugula, Swiss chard, beets, celery, carrots, radishes, onions, and snap peas. A farm-to-table milestone was achieved when I harvested the ingredients for a sixteen-person dinner party fresh from my little plot. We have since started composting, the mark of bona fide gardening in my estimation. The final push in this lifelong transition came when the American Association of University Women asked to put our home on the annual spring garden tour, which I have ardently attended for years. Ha! Imagine me dispensing horticulture advice – a true metamorphosis.

The Edible SchoolyardIn solidarity of my transition to a full-fledged gardener, I spent a chilly winter morning touring Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard that has been seventeen years in the making. Back in 1996 she took it upon herself to transform Berkeley’s blighted Martin Luther King Middle School into a sustainable urban oasis. Alice didn’t set out to revolutionize anything; she was simply trying to make her corner of the world a better place. Her goal was to give the children an understanding of where our food comes from and show them the human connection of growing, preparing, and enjoying food together as a community. By integrating lessons from the garden and kitchen into the curriculum, she designed a program that involves students in the whole cycle, encouraging them to buy into the concepts of healthy eating and sustainable living. Through trials and errors and intermittent successes, this one-acre cement wasteland gradually evolved into a vibrant model of urban school gardening. The best advice from the tour: Take It Slowly. Transitions and victories rarely happen overnight. The process of creating a fertile garden requires bushels of attention, just as the process of becoming a gardener takes many seasons to ripen. I have traipsed far down the garden path, and my green thumb is finally beginning to blossom like those magical popcorn trees.

In this unsettled world we live in full of shootings, nuclear threats, economic woes, and global warming, it’s important for us all to find a little patch of paradise – a place that we can nurture, control, and create solace. There is something so rewarding about growing plants to fruition and enjoying the fruits of that labor. Everyone should try a little gardening, if only for a peaceful distraction from the stresses of life.  Start small. A tomato plant and some basil in a pot by the kitchen door will bring great rewards in summer, and it just may turn into a lifetime of green adventures and victory gardens.

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