LESSONS FROM THE YOGA MAT AND THE GOLF CART

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.

DRAGGING THE PLOW: THE LONG HAUL TO GARDENING

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.

ARMITAGE & KEDZIE: HOME AWAY FROM SWEET HOME

Sweet Home Chicago by Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues

Chicago is a soulful city. Listen closely. Between the walls of architecture glinting off the water you can make out the raw echoes of thumpin’ bass guitars and wailin’ harmonicas creeping out from under the darkened doors of the speak-easies. Just beyond that, you can catch the muffled roars bouncing around Wrigleyville and Soldier Field, rebounding the passions of diehard loyals. Is it any wonder that my urban hipster son has ostensibly considered the Windy City his home ever since the day he blustered into town six years ago? Chicago is definitely his kind of town – historically cool filled with salt-of-the-earth midwesterners and a great music scene. Mac has no problem hunkering down the brutal winter in order to fully revel in the most excellent spring-summer-autumn. Truth be told, I heartily encouraged him to spend his college years there, even as my mother’s intuition was screaming that he might not return to his California home for a very long time. We mothers worry, even about our grown children, even long after they are far from our watchful care – so my heart was mollified when I read this marketing piece that Mac sent to me last month. It’s sweet, tinged with a sour tang, to know that my son has found a home away from home that soothes his soul and revs his engine.

 

“LET’S BE REAL…”

 “Urban dwelling is exhausting. We get up early, we work all day, and we play in the evening. Our play often leads us to the beginning of the AM hours, leaving us with barely adequate time for sleep before we do it all over again. But this mundane, trying, and exasperating way of life grows to be a part of us with one stipulation: it’s tiresome. And yes, this even pertains to the young, 20-something, self-proclaimed “go-getter” crowd. Whether you’re caught in the money-trap of the Viagra Triangle, stranded in the post-game ruckus of Wrigleyville, wading through the hipsters in Wicker Park, or plotting your next career jump for that extra buck after a fine meal in the Fulton Market… well let’s be real: we all get tired. And yes, even the highest level of Social Super Hero needs a remedy for their kryptonite that is fatigue, and that remedy is our home.

 I reside on the corner of Armitage and Kedzie- a location that struggles with a geographical status: Logan Square or Humboldt Park? Since 2010, I have called this ambiguous neighborhood home, and sure, just like every other upcoming neighborhood in this city, it’s incredible to witness the change. This is important to embrace as we rely on recouping from our day-to-day hustle-and-bustle lifestyle. When we inevitably grow fatigued from experiencing all that our beloved Chicago has to offer, we place all of our night’s marbles on the few local destinations that our aching legs can bear to drag us from our home. With that said, I give you my honest assessment of my favorite neighborhood drink and dining establishments. Inevitably, my local bias to these establishments will bleed through. Let’s do our best to look past that.

 Dante’s Pizzeria (3028 W. Armitage) Whether you’re Joe-Shmo, Superfluous Sally, or a Broke+Content – everyone enjoys pizza. However, the punk rock owned and operated Dante’s Pizzeria goes above and beyond the standard. Owner Tim Murphy has concocted a new breed of Chicago ‘Za that leaves our deep dish founders bloated and ashamed, and the New York thin slice pioneers asking themselves “Where’d we go wrong and what are we missing?” With a BYOB sign and slices of the day like the “Chicago-Dog Slice”, yeah, Dante’s bleeds Chicago style and then some.

 Scofflaw (3201 W. Armitage) If you can find that collared shirt (or not) and have a taste for the finer things in life, look no further than the already over-publicized Scofflaw. Owners Andy and Mandy take our taste buds on a never-ending journey through a triple threat series of bi-monthly rotational menus. Scofflaw’s tongue-tingling cocktails, superior craft beer selection, and Michelin-Star worthy dining consistently provide full stomachs, fuzzy heads, and smiling faces. As the newest addition to the neighborhood, Scofflaw, I commend and welcome you with open arms, as I have quite literally done so on one or seven late evenings.

 Marble (3281 W. Armitage) Whether you’re looking to watch the game, thirsty to drink, chow on some grub, or simply enjoy the outdoors, be ready to do it all at Marble. In “bar” language, I didn’t think the words “upscale” and “dive” could come hand-in-hand, at least until I finished this sentence. But who am I kidding, with first-class servers like Lyndsey Grimes and Caitlin Rose, it’s no surprise that Marble’s shimmering presence continues to glow throughout the neighborhood and light up the always packed outdoor patio. With an extensive selection of bottles and draft beers, nightly food specials, and sparingly tasteful karaoke nights, locals much too often can be found professing their adoration of the establishment to their favorite servers. “Marble, I’ve loved you from the start. There can be only one.”

In the end, we are still the urban dwellers, thriving on the new experiences and spontaneity that the great city of Chicago has, and always will provide. But reality will often catch us by the heels – how and where we choose to fall is in our own hands. For the time being, I seek refuge at Kedzie and Armitage. And let’s be real: it’s nice to have found a home.“

Each time we visit Mac’s sweet home Chicago, we find him more and more entrenched in the many tiers of this storied town. On a recent visit, Mac’s Grand Tour took us to some old familiar haunts and as well as some new journeys…

~ Late-night jamming with Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues at the legendary Kingston Mines

~ Millennium Park strolling to trip out over the endlessly fascinating Mirror Bean and Crown Fountain

~ Sublime shopping on the Magnificent Mile – Ok let’s be real, Haley and I forced Mac into this leg of the Tour (but HE made out like Bonnie and Clyde)

~ Cheering with the locals at Jimmy Green’s and Rockit and Kitty O’Shea’s – Keeping it real, between Coach’s College Football, Da Bears, and the Giant’s World Series Sweep, an inordinate amount of time was spent bouncing around these venues

~ Wining and dining – one of the great pastimes of Chicago – at Catch 35, Sweetwater Grill, the Publican, Scofflaw, and of course Gibson’s with good ol’ cantankerous Tommy the Waiter

~ Soaking up the rich history and renaissance of the Fulton Market and sensing the mafia ghosts lurking in every meat packing cold storage warehouse

~ Best of all, hanging out at the Armitage & Kedzie digs, home of Mac Haertl. Perhaps one bright sunny day my son will dig his way out of the Chicago trenches and transplant himself back into the fertile Northern California soil. Until that day, I’ll settle for being happy to know that he has found a sweet home-away-from-home. It may be important to give our children roots and wings, but it is vital to give them the ability to grow new roots wherever their seeds may land.

LIVING YOUR TRUTH WITH MRAZ AND MADONNA

Ray of Light by Madonna

Living In the Moment by Jason Mraz  (click to play)

Mraz the Grateful Hippie and Madonna the Material Girl make strange bedfellows. Indeed, the only place they will probably ever converge is in my serendipitous Bay Area concert tour last week.  There really was no master plan or method to the madness for this tour. Tony and I were invited to see Jason’s love fest with two other couples on Thursday, and then I jumped onboard a girls’ boondoggle to Madge’s spectacle three nights later. And although these two performers have very little in common, I am struck by the fact that they both genuinely live their truths and walk their talks.

My magical mystery tour began when my daughter and I took Jason Mraz’s advice to get a table at the Gratitude Café. I thought that was just a cool line in his song  “Make It Mine”, but it turns out that he is one of the investors in a small chain of vegan restaurants called Café Gratitude. One of my friends went to his show in Kansas City and mentioned that Jason showed up at the K.C. Café Gratitude for lunch on the day of his concert to grace the patrons with an intimate acoustical performance. Hoping to catch Mraz up close and personal, Haley and I waltzed into the Berkeley Café Gratitude for lunch on Thursday. We pulled up two seats at a corner table with the perfect vantage point for wherever Jason chose to play. We were smitten with the whimsical menu and placed our order with a few giggles: “I Am Luscious” and “I Am Energized” beverages to go with our “I Am Warm-Hearted” and “I Am Transparent” entrees. We admired the cozy venue with its brick walls, rustic décor, and inspirational artwork. We purchased the “I Am Grateful” cookbook and started planning some fun, super-healthy meals to prepare. And then we got a little antsy, so we broke down and admitted to our server that we were hoping to have lunch with Jason. To our dismay, he informed us that the singer already made a surprise appearance the night before. No matter… the trip was more than worthwhile to discover such an uplifting dining experience. They even have the “I Am Grateful” specialty that is available to ANYONE with a voluntary donation – no one is turned away – to enable those in financial need to be able to eat organic food. Best soup kitchen in town.  As Mraz and his pals say, “Café Gratitude is our expression of a world of plenty. “

If you’re familiar with Jason Mraz’s music, you will know that his songs are mellow tunes filled with wise, thoughtful lyrics that celebrate life and love. Cal’s outdoor Greek Theater on a beautiful autumn evening was the perfect setting for his intimate, conversational performance. My husband loves an ear-splitting, hard-driving rockfest, but even he admitted that Mraz’s live performance was much more electrifying than his recordings. Mraz brought in a great brass ensemble and a solid drummer. Best of all, he teamed up with a bang-a-rang female percussionist to really excite the show. Mona Tavakoli, an Iranian world-class drummer, founded the Los Angeles Rock’n’Roll Camp for girls. With her long dark wild locks and screamin’ red spandex pants, she is an onstage presence, and with her flashy way of pounding energy out of anything that makes noise, she is a force to be reckoned with.  Mraz is better live with Mona, but he’s pretty entertaining on his own, and he imparts his wisdom with a touch of humor through his lyrical words. Maybe Madonna should listen to his music and take a cue from his words:

“You’re like a long game token that keeps the game goin’

But your claim to fame is how you like to lay low

Out of the lime light

Which can hurt your eyes

If you’re not careful you’ll become another devil in disguise”

(From You F*in’ Did It)

So what is it about Madonna? She is confounding.  Always controversial and often misunderstood, sexually provocative and politically defiant, Madonna truly is the Queen of Reinvention. In her thirty legendary years of entertaining, I had never been to one of her extravaganza shows, so I was looking forward to finally getting a taste of her over-the-top antics and perhaps a sense of who this most reviled yet respected woman really is.  Madonna is the best-selling female recording artist in history according to the Guinness Book of World Records and one of the 25 Most Powerful Women of the Past Century according to Time. She is continually renovating her music, her image, and herself.  Whatever crazy stunts she has pulled and contentious words she has said, you’ve got to admire her longevity and the way she outlasts her harshest critics. Her words and actions may be misguided, but they always seem to come from her heart. I get the sense that she is on a lifelong quest for something, perhaps for her own truth. Her mother died when she was five years old, of which she said, “There was so much left unsaid, so many untangled and unresolved emotions, of remorse, guilt, loss, anger, confusion…” She also claimed that growing up she was a “lonely girl who was searching for something. I wasn’t rebellious in a certain way. I cared about being good at something.”

Madonna seems to have good intentions, but her display of those well-meant sentiments are often in very poor taste. Her latest MDNA World Tour is a crowning glory of misunderstood debauchery. During her Los Angeles show, she did a strip tease in support of Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for being an activist for women’s education. So here is this brave young heroine lying in critical condition after fighting for women’s rights, while Madonna is paying tribute to her by baring her own body. Hmmm, there is a disturbing disconnect here.  Madonna has also nobly performed for a number of benefit concerts to aid a variety of worthy causes, and yet her life’s actions appear to be self-absorbed and publicity-stunt worthy, like her contentious adoption of the Malawi African boy. A nice philanthropic effort, but why?

Our evening with Madonna started 150 minutes late, in typical diva fashion. And then Madge sucked the celebratory air out of the Shark Tank arena when she stormed the stage in a macabre bloody mess. Aiden Vaziri, pop music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle described the scene perfectly: “Madonna arrived onstage all guns blazing. Literally. For the first four numbers she worked her way through a small arsenal of handguns and semiautomatic weapons as she shot up a virtual church, took aim at audience members and, in a scene surely inspired by Quentin Tarantino, bloodied a stream of masked men as she sang ‘Gang Bang’ while perched on a motel room crucifix. The gunplay was supplemented by heavy bondage. Madonna was strung up and suspended upside down by guerrilla fighters… high-contrast images from a funeral played on the video screens while shirtless dancers in gas masks forcefully tangled their bodies.” Ugh. My dancing mood was shot straight through the heart and strangled with dark gloom. I’m sure she was making some poignant anti-violence point, but it was virtually lost on me – take me back to Mraz at the Greek.

The softer side of Madge emerged a couple of times that evening when she paid tribute to young gay men who had been senselessly murdered in hate crimes and when she thanked her fans for making the miracles in her life possible. I did appreciate her quiet expression of gratitude for her amazing 30-year career. It’s just that as a 54-year-old Kabbalah-practicing yogi, I would have liked to see a little more peaceful wisdom coming from this iconic role model. But then I guess she wouldn’t have the same world-wide appeal without the edginess she brings to the stage and to her life.  Why should I expect anything decent out of the feisty prima donna who lives for shock value and re-inventing herself to try to stay relevant in the hip, fickle world of pop culture? Nevermind… for whatever despicable things she says and does in the name of art and politics, you have to admire her desire and ability to put on a masterful musical production, year after thirty years.

We are all searching for truths and meanings in life, but Madonna makes me grateful to be plain old ordinary me, without that unquenchable thirst to be something extraordinary. Mraz, Madonna, and Me – just livin’ our truths the best we can.

“You see that I am hungry for a life of understanding

And you forgive my angry little heart when she’s demanding

You bring me to my knees while I’m scratching out the eyes

Of a world I want to conquer, and deliver, and despise

And right while I am kneeling there

I suddenly begin to care

And understand that there could be

A person that loves me”

(Rescue Me by Madonna)

INDOMITABLE SPIRIT

I Will Not Be Broken by Bonnie Raitt (click to play)

We live in a competitive world, and it’s easy to get caught up in the game of comparisons. Unfortunately, this is a no-win game because there will always be someone with more money, more brains, more athletic abilities, more accomplishments, more fun, more everything than we have. Very few of us truly enjoy this comparison game, but the way to be happier while playing is to focus on the other side of the game board – the side where people have less than we do. This is a sure-cure for the blue poor-me card that we draw from the deck every so often. It is difficult to focus on the LESS side, but it’s surprisingly rewarding in so many ways.

The human spirit is an amazingly resilient entity, and I am overwhelmed by the hardships that countless brave souls have withstood, around the world, throughout the course of time. On a recent trip to Berlin, I found myself questioning: How can a person endure the physical torture and emotional destruction of a concentration camp? And how can a city lift itself out the war-torn rubble and restore its splendor, brick by brick? The will to survive, the will to thrive, the will to carry on is nowhere more apparent than in Deutschland. Germany, whose national psyche was destroyed with World War I, whose infrastructure was decimated with World War II, whose very soul was shattered with the Nazi Holocaust, whose spirit of unity was divided and conquered with the erection of the communist regime wall. Germany, whose strength of character, hardworking discipline, scientific brilliance, and business acumen is now carrying the weight of Europe’s economy on its broad shoulders.  Our insightful tour guide in Berlin said, “To understand what Berlin is, you must see what Berlin was.”

It’s hard to fathom how the German people fell for the dubious charms of Adolf Hitler, but reading Erik Larson’s In the Garden of the Beasts gives us a better understanding of their desperation for a national identity, sense of pride, and purpose. First they were beaten down and broken by World War I, then they were duped by the Führer’s evil vision, and finally they were quashed with fear.  Thomas Wolfe wrote this about life in Nazi Germany: “Here was an entire nation… infested with the contagion of an ever-present fear. It was a kind of creeping paralysis which twisted and blighted all human relations.” The German people, unwitting perpetrators of the Nazi machine, were victims of Nazi Germany nearly as much as the Holocaust victims. By the end of World War II, hundreds of thousands of Germans lost their lives, and one-third of Berlin had been destroyed by Allied bombings and street fighting, along with the heart and soul of the people. Even today, we felt the Germans’ great shame in being manipulated by Hitler, the weight of millions of Jewish deaths, and the divisive communist devastation.

Even more powerful than learning firsthand about Berlin’s emotionally tumultuous history was our visit to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. A prerequisite for any political leader should be a stint at one of the concentration camp memorials – surely that would prevent the deaths of millions in the future. One visit in a lifetime is enough to mourn the atrocities we commit against each other and to believe in the indomitable spirit of survivors.  I remember feeling absolutely ravaged after spending time at Dauchau back in 1981. The feeling returned after visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. back 2002, and I’ve really had more than my emotional share. But it was important for the rest of the Haertls to have the experience when we were in Germany this summer, so I wrapped my gray alpaca shawl tightly around my shoulders and steeled myself for a stint in Sachsenhausen outside of Berlin. It was a fittingly cold and windy summer day with a gray pall that matched my little security blanket.

As I wandered alone through Sachsenhausen, I decided that I probably would have just given up the will to live, running and throwing myself into the electric fence that surrounded the camp – until I learned that those desperate prisoners were the very people the guards kept alive. They would shoot them in the leg, just enough to stop them in their tracks and haunt them with injuries to make life even more miserable. I stood in the middle of the vast, windblown center of the camp, trying to imagine how those wretched souls withstood the work duty in the freezing winters with threadbare clothes and ragged shoes. I crouched in the dormitories, trying to envision how three skeletal bodies huddled together in one little hard-as-a-rock bug-infested bed and how they managed to sleep a wink when they were chilled to their very bone marrow under one thin rough gray blanket. I cried in the crematories, wondering if the victims were frightened or actually relieved to be ending their tragic lives. This was a most depressing experience even for us voyeuristic visitors, and yet it was a great depression buster. It made me want to seize every opportunity and feel every emotion in Berlin, to soar with the Brandenburg eagles by day and hoot with the Mövchen owls at night.  I found myself commiserating until 3:00 am with the four Haertl brothers, climbing the 270 steps to the top of the Berliner Dom, running through the pouring rain to marvel at the Gates of Babylon in the Pergamon Museum, clubbing and dancing with my daughters until sunrise, reveling in wunderbar bier in den Gärten, and yes, weeping in the concentration camp.

The trials and tribulations that we endure along with the joys and pleasures shape our character and skew the way we view life. Is the glass half full or half empty? Do the joys outweigh the sorrows? Now if ever I start to have my own little pity party, I remember those millions of people with far LESS than I have in my cushy little world, and I feel enormously blessed with all of the creature comforts, loving relationships, and magical moments in my life. If those indomitable spirits can muster up the will to survive such torture, how can I NOT find happiness in the simplest of pleasures?

“First they came for the socialists,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me,

and there was no one left to speak for me.”

 

~ Martin Niemöller

Sachsenhausen Prisoner and Survivor

LAYERS ON THE RUNGS

Another Layer by Jon McLaughlin (click song title to play)

Perception colors our perspective, artfully mirroring our outlook on life. This was illustrated last week when our painter left her ladder in our bathroom overnight.  I walked past it with scarcely a glance, vaguely wondering why she still used such a rickety old paint-splattered wooden ladder when she could easily go buy a shiny new sturdy metal one. My keenly observant husband, on the other hand, had an entirely different take on the ladder as he passed by. He stopped to examine it, fascinated by the caked-on layers of paint. To hear Tony describe this humble piece of equipment, it sounded as if he had encountered a colorful work of art. Intrigued, I went back for a second go around the ladder.  Immediately apparent was the startling realization that it wasn’t the sketchy wooden contraption I assumed, but rather the solid metal model that I thought our painter deserved. The layers upon layers of paint gave the ladder an aged patina, reminiscent of a venetian-plastered vintage antique, with a collection of stories resting on the rungs, just waiting to be told.  Gazing at the ladder in a whole new light set my imagination meandering about the houses she has painted and the people who have commissioned her through the years – a virtual gallery of masterpieces.

Our painter herself is a multi-layered treasure. We first met eighteen years ago when she was recommended to faux our bedroom walls.  She was a busy mother of three and a lovely athletic blond. I was immediately drawn to her quiet charm, the elegance of her paint-splattered overalls, the way she expressed her passion and made a living with her artistry. She has painted the gamut from elaborate murals on the halls of the rich and famous to plasters on the walls of ordinary suburbanites. With each coat of paint she layered on our walls over the years, another layer of her beautiful persona was revealed through our conversations, and I have grown to admire her strength of character and the way she lives her truths. When her larger-than-life husband was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, she bucked up and personally cared for him throughout this grueling illness to the tragic end with no outside professional help, all the while managing to support her family, financially and emotionally. During a recent conversation about this challenging time in her life, I questioned how she was able to handle such adversity with amazing grace and dignity, to which she humbly replied, “We care for family – that’s just what you do.”

Most recently, one of our painter’s grown daughters moved in with her, complete with husband and two young sons. For all the potential downside that many of us would find in these circumstances, our painter has uncovered the boundless joys and conveniences of this multi-layered living situation. She has a live-in cook, handyman and house sitter – not to mention marvelous companionship – while they have a lovely home for their family to blossom in and the wisdom of grandma to help guide them. What are their precious secrets to domestic peace and harmony?

~ Mutually respecting one another on all levels.

~ Giving each other space and time alone.

~ Keeping their mouths zipped shut.  As our wise painter said, “I keep my opinions to myself unless they ask… but when they ask, I can let it rip and say anything I want!”

~ Remembering to treat family like friends. We take time to nurture friendships, but it’s so easy to take family members for granted.

The world according to my painter is simple, true and noble. Life gets messy sometimes, but that just adds to the rich beauty and mystery. There was an article in the Contra Costa Times a few weeks ago about the Italian and Spanish grandmothers – nonnas and abuelas – who are helping their families with children survive and thrive during their countries’ difficult economic times.  Actually, this is nothing new. Multi-generational living is as old as human history, and human beings flourish in family life. Children especially benefit from the layers of love bestowed on them from all angles. Grandparents in the house build feelings of security and help kids stay grounded by creating lots of conversation, encouragement, problem-solving advice, and focus on the future. My father-in-law was always encouraging his grandchildren to be global citizens and tried to convince them to learn Mandarin because of China’s growing presence in the world. I’m quite certain that his gentle prodding is one of the reasons my daughter Sammi is studying Mandarin and spending the upcoming semester in Shanghai. Never underestimate the power of grandparents’ words!

The notion of families caring for each other through the complicated layers is a prevailing way of life in European countries and indeed most other countries in this world – but not so much in America. Perhaps we Yanks are too proud of our independence, displacing ourselves in cities far from our families. Perhaps we are too busy making money and trying to make ends meet to be bothered with caring for ailing, aging, troubled loved ones. Perhaps the hands-on live-in care is too daunting and overwhelming for many of us. Which deepens and enriches my admiration for our painter’s devotion to family even more. In her magnificent simplistic words, “My children were a burden to me, and someday I’ll be a burden to them. That’s just the way life works. We take care of each other… that’s what families do.”

GRANDFAMILIES are prevalent around the world, and the trend of intergenerational families under one roof is rising here in our country. According to the Pew Research Center, about 25% of the U.S. population lived in extended family households in 1940, but by 1980 only 12% did. Since then, layered households are on the increase, and by 2008 there were 49 million Americans – over 16% of the U.S. population – living in a household with at least two adult generations or a grandparent and at least one other generation. There is a great deal of talk about the disintegration of families and family values, but I’d like to believe that the rise of intergenerational households can only help strengthen the family ties and layers. If families helped each other more, there would probably be less welfare cases and fewer unhappy, disconnected individuals. We are social pack animals by nature, like puppies in a litter happily rolling around the floor all over each other.

If all this layered togetherness starts to feel claustrophobic, just imagine that you and your family members are characters in a movie or sit com that you’re filming. It helps to create a little emotional distance and breathing room, and it often brings a laugh at the absurdity of everybody painting on their layers so thick. Who knows what kind of a messy masterpiece your intergenerational family will create… but just start painting with vision, keeping your happy family in mind, and above all, have some crazy fun. Lay it on the rungs for the world to behold.

SCARS OF LIFE

Beach Baby by The First Class (click to play)

Sins of my sunny youth
caught me at last
Baby oil bakes, beach baby romps, boating poolside floats

It was a playful game of tag
that I was bound to lose
Shocking as it was, it really came as no surprise

Blue-eyed blonds frolicking in the sun
for fifty years
must surely pay the price

Golden hair, brown as a bear, peeling freckled sunburned nose
all endless summer, every glorious summer
More sun-filled fun-filled days

than I can count or clearly deserve
So pay did I
with a gnarly Harry Potter scar

The fickle sun gods should be beaming
but there is no guarantee
their sun worship greed may demand more

somewhere down the sunlit road
Sunscreen fanatics, paranoid vigilantes, proactive bugaboos
win the game of tag and life

Scars of our youth, scars of our lives
Life scars and robs us of our youth
Far better to sacrifice youth and pay with scars

than sacrifice life and pay with death
For there is character and truth
in scars

Power in rockin hats, rockin bangs
rockin Harry Potter scars with dignity and gratitude
for life

Sporting a bad sunburn from a day on the slopes, I just couldn’t pass up a trip to Palm Springs back in the day

Yes, the dreaded melanoma diagnosis came as suddenly as the innocuous mark above my left eyebrow. I’ve been half-joking for many years now that the sun follies of my life – in the Arizona desert, the California beaches, and frankly anywhere in the world that I found a patch of sunlight – were inevitably going to exact a toll. There is nothing like the warmth of the sun shining down on your face to melt your heart and soul, and I have spent many of the most marvelous times of my life in the glow of the sun, happy times that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.

Grabbing a patch of sun in the snow, oh so long ago

Of course now we know the dangers of sun worship, but for the first twenty years of my life the only protection we knew of was zinc oxide, the neon-white gooey goop that lifeguards smeared on their noses. No self-respecting sun goddess would be caught dead with that oozing on her face, no sir. But always the vigilante, I was that odd teenager who would come home from a day of scorching at the lake and pour on the olive oil, that miraculous Italian cure-all.  It may have saved me from turning into a wrinkly, leathery lizard, but it couldn’t save me from every peril. We are all the wiser now about sun protection, and we have all been warned ad nauseum about the deadly effects of over-exposure. I’m a realist and have been ultra-paranoid and uber-proactive about my skin check-ups for the past twenty years – I didn’t really need proof that I am not invincible. But need it or not, I certainly have that proof now in the form of a nice-n-gnarly super-cool zigzag Harry Potter scar that I have already grown to love because it probably saved my life. And as my incredibly supportive husband and three wise old children pointed out, scars add character and show that we have truly lived life. Ok then, I will happily, gratefully welcome that scar, especially since it certainly beats the alternative.

Reveling in one of my favorite sun days on the Red Sea

So here are my Five Mandates handed down by the sun gods that I want you all to take to heart:

~ Be a cautious lover of the outdoors. Don’t leave the house without sunscreen, and slather it liberally… the sun is not to be taken lightly!

~ Be observant and persnickety about your body, inside and out. If something doesn’t seem quite right, it probably isn’t!

~ Be a pesky, proactive patient. At the risk of driving your doctor crazy, get frequent checkups and be your own best advocate by asking as many questions as it takes to resolve the issue! 

~ Be intuitive. Listen to that quiet little voice inside of you and trust your gut instinct, which is usually wiser than our stubborn brain. Don’t be an ostrich with your head in the sand… ignorance is not bliss and just might be the difference between life and death!

~ Be well, be happy, and rock those scars of life!

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