LAZINESS KILLED THE MOJO

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Don’t Stop (Color on the Walls) by Foster People

To everything there is a season – no truer words when it comes to my creativity. Autumn is the most industrious season, and the momentum carries well into winter and spring. Unfortunately, by summer my writing takes an unearned extended vacation. Perhaps this tendency subliminally harks back to a childhood of barefoot summers running amuck followed by back-to-school days with the smell of sharpened pencils and crisp new textbooks that set the mood for learning. Even in these techie times of typing madly on my laptop, I notice that the long-forgotten bump on my middle finger – the one that grew ever more calloused with each handwritten term paper back in the no-tech age – rears its dented little head in the fall as I scribble scintillating sentences and flip off any lazy notions that try to lure me away from my desk.

Alas, the battle back to momentum is grueling. If you love doing something, don’t ever stop. The risk of lost mojo is too great. Like many skills, writing is a bit like riding a bike… once you know how to do it, you never forget. But it’s even more like a sport… slack off in practice and you lose your technique, conditioning, probably even your spot on the team. Keep doing whatever it is you love and don’t stop – even if it’s just a little bit every damn day. I spent half of September crawling my way back to the writing desk and most of October angsting for inspiration. Just in time for November’s NAtional NOvel WRIting MOnth, the mojo is coming back. Keep the crayons out of the box and never stop coloring on those walls.

MAKING PEACE WITH RELEVANCE (OR LACK THEREOF)

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Lost Stars – Adam Levine

What happens when a gritty coach, a frustrated actor, and a revolutionary doctor collide? There’s a feisty brouhaha – that’s what. Coach Todd French, Michael Keaton’s Birdman, and Atul Gawande have been skirmishing in my brain these days, raising the unsettling specter of Life’s Meaning.

Todd French was a coach who helped bring lacrosse to the West Coast and became a legend in the Bay Area. He was recently memorialized in front of a packed stadium at the local high school after his valiant four-year battle with lung cancer. The clusters of shiny-eyed athletes dressed in navy blazers and the stirring tributes to this reluctant hero made me want to rush from the locker room and play the game of life all out just like Todd did. He was a tough competitive spirit who directly inspired hundreds of young athletes and indirectly touched thousands of people of all ages. His wife and two sons endured the anguish of watching this robust man’s physical decline, but they must certainly be uplifted by the outpouring of community support, the genuine admiration on display, and the immortalizing of his legacy: Team French Forever. We should all be so fortunate to have that kind of an impact on this earthly life. I hope that Todd’s family can rest in the peace that Frenchie was visibly relevant and inspiring in a world filled with pain, tyranny and hopelessness. Coach French had found the meaning of his life.

Alas, Michael Keaton’s character as the aging superhero Birdman battled disastrously to find his life’s meaning, despite great fame and Hollywood success. Tony and I watched this movie one quiet evening and sort of shrugged our shoulders about it. But it’s the kind of movie that stays with you, and we tossed and turned on it all night. We took one look at each other the next morning and just had to watch it again right then and there, so compelling it was. Birdman powerfully portrays the demonic feelings of inadequacy and disillusionment that haunt us all. Many a personal crisis – especially the midlife variety – are sprung from the fear of irrelevance. Even the truly great ones blessed with talents and passion – a la Robin Williams and Phillip Seymour Hoffman – struggle mightily to find peace in what appears to the public as sensational importance. Not many of us have the gifts or the wherewithal to have a true impact on the world in a big superstar way, even the superstars themselves.

My book club is reading a book this month about living and dying with intention. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande takes a look at aging with dignity, wrangling with terminal illness, dying on our terms, and balancing the fight for life with the grace of letting go. My takeaway on all of his insights and the meaningful studies in his book is that we humans have a profound need to find reasons to live beyond ourselves that make living feel worthwhile. And perhaps, the more fulfillment we find in simply being, the less worried we are about achieving and accumulating and self-important pursuits.

As the wise Dr. Gawande says, “In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all its moments – which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. A seemingly happy life may be empty. A seemingly difficult life may be devoted to a great cause. We have purposes larger than ourselves. Unlike your experiencing self – which is absorbed in the moment – your remembering self is attempting to recognize not only the peaks of joy and valleys of misery but also how the story works out as a whole. Why would a football fan let a few flubbed minutes at the end of the game ruin three hours of bliss? Because a football game is a story. And in stories, endings matter.” In closing his Being Mortal documentary Atul says, “How is dying ever at all acceptable? How is it ever anything except this awful terrible thing? And the only way it is is because we live for something bigger than ourselves.”

We tell our children, “Follow your passion!” But there is something demoralizing about the following your passion myth. Most people never even FIND this elusive passion let alone have the opportunity to chase it down. The trick is to simply follow our interests, allow ourselves to dream, and hope to find some sense of fulfillment in the process.

We bumble and bluster our way through our idealistic teens & twenties, power and hustle through our industrious thirties & forties… and hit our fifties & sixties disillusioned and disenchanted, feeling irrelevant, wanting to leave a mark somehow, realizing that this really IS all there is. We just need to learn to be happy with our little mark – pinprick in actuality – whether it’s nurturing family, doing small good deeds, or supporting a cause that holds a place in our hearts. We are all irrelevant in the scheme of the universe, but as long as we haven’t committed some heinous crime or crawled under a boulder, we are all relevant. My wise Russian friend once told me, “You’ve raised three children, you’ve done your job. You’re relevant.” It’s kind of like “What’s enough?” Not many of us are going to make a big splash in this world and leave a huge legacy behind, so it’s all about finding contentment in whatever little bit we can do. We are as wondrously relevant and humbly irrelevant as every other pinpricking soul in the Big Out There.

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“You are not IN the universe, you ARE the universe, an intrinsic part of it. Ultimately you are not a person, but a focal point where the universe is becoming conscious of itself. What an amazing miracle.”

-Eckhart Tolle

LETTING GO FOR DEAR LIFE

IMG_8595Let It Go by Tim McGraw

Hanging on is a natural instinct. It’s primal. We hold on to branches, rails, vines and wires to break our falls – we hold on to the intangible familiar to avoid the scary unknown – we hold on to the things we love because it hurts to let go. But letting go is a must, and doing so can save our lives – or at least our sanity. There is sublime peace in letting go of our loved ones as they grow up or move on, and there is gratifying freedom in letting go of things that weigh us down or hold us back.

Autumn is a season of letting go, as surely as the trees drop their vibrant leaves in red-and-orange glory, belying the fact that they are uselessly dead. Nature liberates the trees, leaving us to rake up messy piles that scatter with the gusts ushering in fall. Meanwhile, spiders spin out sticky traps at a furious pace, creating spooky decor and forcing us to drag out brooms to sweep away the dirty cobwebs. And perhaps it’s just creepy imagination, but my cupboards and closets are suddenly agitated like a haunted house. Where did all this restless junk come from?

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Forget spring cleaning… all that needs to be done in the blooming season is to fling open the doors and windows to let the floral-scented breezes blow through, clearing out the cooped-up air. Fall cleaning is really where it’s at. There’s this overwhelming urge to roust out the rattling skeletons and round up the tarnished trinkets that have been carefully displayed but now look like annoying dust collectors. It must be a nesting thing, like a mama bear preparing her cave for a long winter’s nap.

My usual autumn exuberance has been overrun by obsessive de-cluttering this fall. It started with the crunchy leaves littering our front walkway and the spider webs dangling around our front door. Armed with a broom, it was easy to let go of that mess. However, it was a different story when I stepped through the front door. The frenzy began as my decorator daughter with her discerning eye began to chastise in that authoritarian way she has.

“You need to nourish minimalism, Mom. Start by getting rid of the frumpy silk plants. They’re so passé.”

“But look at all beautiful pots they’re in,” I said defensively.

“They just make the rooms look cluttered. Pick your favorite one and get rid of the rest.” Sammi ruthlessly scanned the living room. “What about all these knickknacks left over from your shabby chic days? And all the picture frames plastering every shelf and table?”

“But I love all these photos – they make me happy.”

“That’s what photo albums are for, Mom. If you had to dust all this stuff you’d think twice about keeping it.” Touché.

My daughter’s stab at the luxury of a housekeeper struck home and guilted me into a clutter bust. Some of the beloved objects were difficult to let go, so I hauled them up the ladder to my attic dumping ground where tired treasures could be hidden but not discarded. I switched on the attic light to discover jumbled chaos – there was barely space to crawl around. How did this happen? Just two years ago my older daughter moved home after college and admonished me about the mess in the attic as she tried to find room to store some of her possessions.

“What is all this crap, Mom?” Haley teased me. “Let’s clean up this place and see what goodies you’ve been stashing all these years!” We proceeded to weed through every box and basket and bag and cubby and pile which contained things both useful and sentimental, so I thought.

“Mom, why are you saving these pictures?” Haley questioned as she flipped through a stack of framed artwork leaned against a wall. She lifted an eyebrow at me when she came upon a garish Civil War drawing from an ancient newspaper.

“Hey, that’s probably a valuable antique!” I claimed. “Anyway, I thought you kids might want them for your apartments someday.”

“Honestly, none of us will ever put these in our places. You can get rid of them all.” Oh. “And what about all these boxes of schoolwork and trophies and memorabilia?” Haley looked incredulous that I had saved so much stuff from their childhood.

“Well, you kids will probably want to share these fun things with your own kids someday, won’t you?”

“Mom, I guarantee you that none of us will ever go through all this mishmash. Just pick a few of your favorite things and pitch the rest. Or you can take pictures of the things you really like and make a photo book of treasures.” Hmmm.

Now that is practical sentimentality. Haley shifted my perspective of what is important into what is realistic. As harsh as it felt, it was true – what on earth would my kids do with all of those keepsakes? That October day we restored the attic to a respectable storage room with plenty of space to maneuver around minimal crap. And now here it was, two years later, ludicrously stuffed to the rafters once again. One of my bosom buddies and I made a pact seventeen years ago that if either of us died we would go through the other’s attic, trusting only one another to the horrors of our hoarding. Now, years later, our husbands and grown kids would be the ones to wade through the flotsam and jetsam in the wake of our deaths. Not wanting to put that morbid task on my family, I embarked on the Fall 2014 Purge.

Anecdotally, many realtors say that the typical homeowner lives in their house for 7 years before moving on. Statistically, HousingEconomics.com states that the average buyer moves every 12 years. Stodgy homebodies like us who stay put in the same house for 22 years not only beat the odds but accumulate riffraff, remnants, odds&ends, castoffs and gewgaw at an alarming rate. MOVING is the best cure for clutter, but the next best thing is a relentless expulsion.  Simplifying and embracing minimalism is to feel the lightness of being. Besides, it’s rewarding to know that those 127 books, 5 lamps, 4 rugs, 19 homecoming/prom dresses, 8 bolts of gossamer fabric, 3 bags of Halloween costumes, 2 boxes of holiday decor, 7 silk plants in beautiful pots and 16 pieces of heinous framed artwork will go to people who might actually use and appreciate it. Here are some sparse tips about the fine art of de-cluttering and letting go that I gleaned during The Purge…

◆ Dare to be bare and spare. When I removed objects, the rooms felt rather empty. But after a day or two, the open spaces felt fresh, airy and stylish.

◆ Start small, drawer by drawer, shelf by shelf.

◆ Set goals. Give away one item each day. Fill one trash bag every week. Clean one closet per month.

◆ Stop buying stuff and avoid recreational shopping. As Donald Horban said, “We don’t need to increase our goods as much as we need to scale down our wants. Not wanting something is as good as possessing it.”

◆ Employ the Four Box Method: Set out four big boxes labeled 1) Give Away    2) Throw Away 3) Relocate 4) Reconsider. As soon as a box is filled, take the appropriate action. It’s strangely fulfilling to lug a box to the trash or drive three boxes to the thrift store.

◆ Make a Book of Treasures. Just as we cherish people and places through photographs, so we can enjoy our prized possessions more in a memories book than we can stashed in a dark attic.

The most satisfying part of the Fall Purge is that my Project Room is now a streamlined sanctuary with nothing to distract me from the challenge of writing a book. And just like Sammi helped me take drastic measures to minimize my decor, I need to do something radical to maximize my writing. De-cluttering cleared the way for focused creativity, so I’ll be adventuring to the formidable land of NaNoWriMo to let go of my writing inhibitions.

November is National Novel Writing Month with the objective to write a 50,000 word book in 30 days. The pressure of spitting out 1,700 words a day without the tedious self-editing that typically accompanies my writing process is just the thing I need to shake things up. To be sure, the end result will be a very messy, terribly unreadable draft, but like I tell my writing students at Richmond High: Rough drafts don’t need to be perfect, they just need to be written! Imagine the fun I’ll have de-cluttering that manuscript.

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SO HOW DO YOU MEASURE SUCCESS?

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.

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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.

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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?”)

 

 

 

BREVITY

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.

WE’RE BURNING UP!

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:

TREATS

Red Wine

Dark Chocolate

SUPPLEMENTS

Omega 3,

Fish Oil, Probiotics,

Magnesium, Vitamin E

HERBS & SPICES

Turmeric, Curry, Garlic

Ginger, Cinnamon, Parsley

Rosemary, Green Tea with Local

Honey

FISH & SEAFOOD

Wild Alaskan Salmon

Tuna, Oysters, Sardines (try

the canned ones with flavored

marinades – they go down a little easier)

PROTEIN

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

Greek Yogurt, Kefir

ESSENTIAL FATS (yes, really)

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

Nuts

BEANS & LEGUMES

Any and all, especially organic

WHOLE & CRACKED GRAINS

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

FRUITS

Every Kind of Berries, Apples, Grapefruit

VEGETABLES

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:

COCONUT CURRY SOUP 

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.

TURMERIC SOUP

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.

TRAINING SHOULDERS

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.

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