Thursday, October 22, 2015

In Praise of Technology

I recently spent a month in Todos Santos, Baja Sur. In exchange for house/pet sitting, I got four weeks of solitude in a casita, during which I was able to work on a book project about Dr. Warren Borgquist. The prospect of leaving California for an extended time to write was exciting, but I also hated the thought of missing out on the active lives of my family, all of whom live nearby. Close proximity to my fifteen grandkids is a blessing I’m grateful for everyday, especially when I talk with friends whose families are scattered all over the world.

I had no idea the degree to which I’d be singing the praises of technology while on this trip, but I found that there were a gazillion ways to stay in touch while also working faithfully on my project.

I tutored and responded to the essays of two grandsons and two granddaughters, via Facetime and Google Docs. I watched videos of two granddaughters in their dance classes and viewed pictures of my swiftly growing 15-month old grandson. Toward the end of the trip, two videos arrived in iMessage of him learning to stand and then learning to walk while pushing a rolling toy. I watched my brother walk the Camino de Santiago compliments of a photo album on iCloud. I texted and emailed with family and friends, staying abreast of their exciting lives. I chatted on Facetime with Cindy several times a week and we texted one another all day long. I also consulted with my daughter-in-law via Facetime to get clarification on a medical procedure about which I was writing. And I remotely promoted a Writers Workshop that was scheduled to take place several days after I returned home.

At the same time I was writing my third book in Baja, the Kindle version of my first book, BetweenTwo Women, was published on Amazon. And of course, the work I was doing on the book could not have been accomplished without a computer and word processing while listening to MP3 files of some of the interviews I've conducted.

Though I’m a happy and relatively competent user of technology, this experience of maintaining wholesome communication with my loved ones while far away was new to me. I feel gratified to be a writer working in the 21 Century—one who can have her solitude and community too.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Kindness Training

I’m not an unkind person, but I’m certainly not someone for whom the attribute “kind” is the first thing that comes to mind. In fact, kindness is an issue I’ve grappled with since about 2nd grade when I wasn’t very nice to a classmate. I snubbed her friendly invitation to play and headed off to inch my way into a group that seemed more popular. This behavior became a habit, particularly with this one girl. I’m not sure when I realized I was being unkind, but I do recall that I eventually came to think about it at night when I would promise myself to be nicer to Judy the next day. But I never seemed to be able to pull it off.
I thought about it for years, especially when I felt myself behaving similarly to others later in life. What was astonishing is that at my 10-year high school reunion, Judy greeted me warmly as if I was one of her oldest and dearest friends. We had a wonderful chat, and I learned that she and her husband had bought a home around the corner from the house in which I grew up. She regularly talked with my dad and knew a lot about my life. Had this woman never felt my snubs? Or was she simply one of those extremely forgiving and, dare I say, kind people?
The Judy scenario was one that continued to niggle at the edges of my conscience for years. And though I eventually could catch myself in the act of such behavior and change it, I hadn’t exactly stopped doing the snub thing. Moreover, another example of a particular lack of thoughtfulness slammed me one evening as I rushed into a big bookstore to make a purchase while my spouse waited in the car. The man who held the door for me called attention to the fact that I had walked right in without so much as a thank you. I was terribly embarrassed, so much so that I couldn’t even make my purchase. You see, my spouse had been calling me on this lack of courtesy for a while, but when a stranger pointed it out, I woke up.

These two incidents had a great deal to do with my plan to go into kindness training in 2014. Athletic models work for me so training was the word that worked. It seemed that I had been aware of this flaw in my character for a long time, but I had not been able change it. Training was necessary to make that happen. Here’s an overview of the training I’ve undertaken this year:
1.  I needed an affirmation. Kindness became my word for 2014.
2.  I needed a coach, so I bought and read Guerrilla Kindness by Gavin Whitsett. I used a highlighter and post-its to mark the suggestions that stood out—many that had never occurred to me and some that I wanted to beef up in my life.
3. Then I made a list of 66 Kindnesses that I wanted to work on this year (I’m 66 this year, so that’s where the number came from).
4. Whitsett recommends marking 20% of the Kindnesses that you think will be easy to implement, so I did that too.
5. Then I set an alarm on my phone to ring every Friday at 7am reminding me to reread the entire list and create a “Kindness Plan” for the upcoming week. I list 4-6 Kindnesses, two of which are more challenging or take longer or more effort.
6. Then I get to work training to be kind.
I’m not an intuitively kind person, like my spouse or one of my granddaughters, but I have to say the impulse is getting more automatic, and I LOVE Fridays. There is so much joy in working on a specific Kindness, like preparing a meal for a friend who is ill, dropping off old magazines at local laundromats, stopping to buy gift certificates for ice cream, the car wash, or movie tickets to give to service people. I’ve learned the names of 10 of my neighbors, so I can speak to them by name when I’m outdoors. I’ve trained myself to the let others end hugs and handshakes.
Best of all, I’m swerving off my intended path more often than not to lend a hand when I notice the opportunity for kindness. No more niggling worry about snubbing Judy, but I do offer a mental thanks to her for helping me see the light.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Dengue & Me

I might not ever know for sure if I had dengue fever, but what I do know is that after I returned from Baja Sur, I fell ill in a whole new way. I was wracked by fever that set my blood or my nerves (I could never be certain which) humming with agitation. The constant sensation of tremor that didn't subside even when the fever did was disconcerting and frightening. Thirst was constant and yet water often tasted metallic or sometimes like flowers or putrid like sewage. Cottonmouth was a constant. My entire digestive system was rumbling, not with hunger but with tiny waves of peristalses that made me feel constantly sea-sick nauseous. Meanwhile, the headache behind my eyes made me yearn for darkness. I couldn't look at a screen for more than a few minutes. On the worst day, I could barely text a three letter response to my daughter who was monitoring me from her home while Cindy was attending an event where I was supposed to be. A tiny bloody nose started a sore in my nose that caused me to sneeze again and again for days. My lips were chapped and my upper lip felt swollen with herpes that never actually appeared. I shuffled from the recliner to the couch in my office to the bed, trying to change my recumbent position to ease the constant ache in my back. Every step made my head pound and my eyes blur. Tinnitus rang in my ears.

On day 3, the fever subsided. On Day 5, I woke in the night with such severe nausea that I decided to go to the ER for monitoring. It was the right thing to do in terms of getting blood work and easing my mind about symptoms that might have indicated I'd moved into DHF—Dengue Hemorraghic Fever—the more severe version, the onset of which is 4 to 7 days into the illness, but the experience left me beyond sad about the absence of my long term family doctor, Warren Borgquist, not to mention wasted from being out in the cold in the middle of the night. By the middle of Day 6, I sensed a shift. The tremor was quieting, not so noisy in my body and maybe even absent for minutes at a time. That was the day that Cindy and I teamed up to make chicken soup. She was sick with a cold, and we knew we needed to nourish ourselves if we wanted to recover. We cooked an organic chicken and sat at the counter to cut vegetables and strip the chicken off the bones. Then I took a long nap and when I got up, I was able to eat a few bites, the first food I'd been able to eat other than mashed potatoes since getting ill. Over the next few days that soup was hugely nourishing. Soon, I was munching on raisins and eating applesauce in between larger and larger bowls of soup. On day 9, I had my first cup of tea, ate a boiled egg and tomato sandwich, and rode with Cindy to town to get a movie from Redbox and veggies for spinach salad. She took one of her scenic routes (read geographically challenged in Sonora) and I didn't even care. I just looked out the window and enjoyed the fall colors.

This morning, I'm sitting in front of a screen writing a blog with a cup of tea on my end table. I'm five pounds lighter, my lips are cracked and peeling, and the face that looked back at me from the mirror this morning is tinged with gray BUT I'm on the other side of my strange tropical illness. This morning I added a book to my wish list: “Almost an Island: Travels in Baja.” Not shying away from that exotic, intriguing place, though I will be sure to pack mosquito repellent for my next visit there or anywhere such insects fly.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Rim Fire Days

There was a puff of smoke in the sky to the south, clearly a fire, something our eyes are alert to in the foothills all summer. We watched a pyrocumulus cloud form on the horizon--beautiful but not benign. The cloud flattened and roiled. Helicopters, air tankers, and fire engines roared into the county. Thus commenced the Rim Fire Days.

At Masters swim practice, I peeked under my arm as I swam watching the helicopters and then a DC-10 flying low. It felt as if the helicopter was going to dip its bucket into Lane 5 for water to douse the fire.

My son texted at 10pm Wednesday saying a fire fighter friend warned they would soon be on advisory evacuation. He wanted to bring his family to my house. "Come on down!" I texted back.  It would be a day and half before his wife called and said, "We are packing up and heading to your place." I'd just spent a sweet hour in an interview with Marjorie and Karma Borgquist talking about family. As I drove away, Phillip Phillips came on the car radio singing "Just know your not alone/I'm gonna make this place your home." I drove quickly to make space for a family of six and their pets.

We moved the Harrelson family in, parked their bikes on the patio and Humphrey, the guinea pig, on the washing machine and made plans for dinner. Cindy and Taylor went shopping, and Cody and Kyle went for a ride on nearby dirt roads in the Samurai. After a dinner, everyone took to screens-- iPads, smart phones, and computers-- to see what was happening. We were consumed with watching the fire via the Internet--mostly Facebook and My Mother Lode, but also InciWeb and a few other sites. The Groveland Facebook page became our favorite site. We called out different reports and showed each other incredible images. Our wifi got so overloaded that the Internet on my computer stalled.

The next morning when I took my tea to the patio, the smoke was as thick as a January fog. I soon headed inside where breathing was easier. The next few days were a whirl of games, guitar music, fire monitoring, food prep, and watching our animals make friends with the Harrelson animals. The days were hot and smokey and filled with family fun. When they decided to head home Sunday afternoon, the quiet in our house was enormous. We missed them.

The next day, the earache I'd been nursing all weekend flared; I tried to catch up on freelance work but kept getting drawn back to fire monitoring on Facebook. Then I got an email from my sister Ginger reporting an offer had been made on the San Francisco house where we grew up.  The world smelled like smoke; the sky turned an eerie crimson and gold at sunset. I was unsettled!

Cindy made cookies, and we took them to an elementary school where firemen were bivouacked. We walked out Plainview Road to the point and watched smoke curling in big plumes from Paper Cabin Ridge. Behind us, the sun was a giant orange globe.

For a seven days, the fire was all we could think about. It wasn't over, but there was a sense that things were pointed in the right direction, that we could resume whatever it was that had stopped or slowed or slipped.  Tomorrow would be different. But first we stood still on that hill until the sky was dark and all we could see was a deep red glow in the distance.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

6423-25 Legacy

When I was six years old, my family moved into a flat on California Street in San Francisco in a building that my dad and his brother had renovated.  We lived upstairs in the 3 bedroom flat with a big back porch and a great yard that had one tree with a tree house. In time, my dad built gates into the 3 neighboring backyards where our friends lived and our playing space expanded exponentially.

Downstairs from the flat at street level was my dad's upholstery shop. Behind the shop and up a short flight of stairs was a small apartment where my uncle lived for a time. After that it was a space for visiting relatives or temporary housing for my dad's workers. Also behind the shop and below the apartment was a basement.

When my parents divorced, my dad moved into the apartment, and he rented the flat to a woman who had one daughter. During the last year of my dad's life, my uncle moved into the shop creating a little living space at the back near the apartment. He piled as much of his belongings as he could on top of my father's already abundant collection at the front of the shop, all around the living space he had shaped, and in the basement. He took care of my dad during his last months, and once he had sufficiently grieved my dad's passing, he moved into the apartment where he lived 18 more years until his death this past January. He didn't remove any of my dad's things but settled his life on top of that of my father's. The upstairs tenant remained in the flat for 42 years.

Now my siblings and I are diving into the legacy in the building at 6423-25 California Street. The layers are deep and pitted with emotion. Last weekend, Cindy and I met my sister Ginger, my son Raleigh, his wife Jenny, and their son Kyle for our second dive into the bowels of the shop and apartment. Well actually, it is the 3rd dive as the fire marshall demanded some cleanup a year ago, and a family contingent spent two days sorting and hauling away much of the flammable material. But there are still mountains of stuff left.

Here's what I want to say: While this could be viewed as a terrible mess left for the heirs to deal with (it is), it is also an opportunity for an endearing thread of connection between the generations. Candice acquires some of her Great Uncle Buddy's record albums and Haydon gets some of his model airplanes. Jenny gets one of Grandpa Stasiu's whale knick-knacks and a photo of Kyle with a 20-year-old jar of Grandpa's kombucha brew; Culley takes the copper triangle that hung over his grandpa's head for years and Raleigh has a tool heyday. Cindy makes a pile of scrap metal for her folks while Ginger and I zero in on memorabilia like a black metal tin with pink flamingos filled with silver coins and a glass box both of which belonged to our father.

We have a couple more trips planned into this crazy haven of history and accumulation. Each time, relatives of the family who first moved into 6423-25 will dive in to see what they can find. Not only is it an hilarious experience of "one person's junk is another person's treasure," these visits are a catch-all for satisfying memories.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Family Daze

Last Sunday, Clare and I went to Mass at St. Josephs in Mariposa. During the homily, the priest talked about Blue Monday, a late January phenomena of depression related to the middle of winter, cold, dark days, lots of sickness, and the distance from both Christmas and Easter with their sacred energy. He went on to offer three practical ways to manage the challenges this time of year brings: gratitude, an affirming attitude, and kindness.

The last week of January 2013 was full of such blueness in our family. The flu hit Cindy's parents and Jennie Lou and Clare. My son's father-in-law was extremely ill and ended up in the hospital as did Cindy's dad. Michael and Raleigh were out of town which left their wives limping along without their main support, and to make matters worse the elder sons, who pitch in with driving and child care, were also away. My daughter-in-law leaped to help her dad, and many friends and I stepped forward to help manage the children--including providing transportation to school, work, and sports--and overnight supervision. Jennie Lou's car broke down, leaving her not only sick but basically stranded. So I did some driving to get those kids to and from school and other events. Over in Mariposa, where Cindy was helping her folks, the pump to the well went out leaving them without water after dark on Friday night. It was dizzying week that could have dropped us to our knees or at least into sick beds but it didn't.

Without actually thinking about, we were doing what the priest recommended. We were grateful to be healthy and have the strength needed to help. We were willing, which was definitely an affirming attitude. And I'm pretty sure we were kind in everything we did.

We love our HUGE family even when dazed with blue moments--for we see the tenderness there and know the blessing.

Sunday, January 20, 2013


For several years I've been wanting to have a dog in my life again. It's been over 20 years since I last owned a dog, but for the first 40 years of my life I was never without one.  Not sure what sparked the recent urge; perhaps it was just a dormant ember that never went away.

My dog has almost arrived on three different occasions. First, I found a Beagle on a rescue site whose mistress had died. The surviving spouse was moving into a small apartment and didn't feel he could keep the dog. On the day I was supposed to go meet her, I got cold feet and called the gentleman. Relief flooded through me to hear him say he took my change of heart as a sign that he needed to keep the dog after all.

The next dog who nearly came to live with me was my grandson's dog, Baxter, who actually spent a week visiting. At the time, my daughter and her family were considering a move out of the area, and it was going to be difficult to take Baxter with them. She asked if I would consider keeping Baxter when they left. I said, "Yes" because I'd enjoyed this companionable dog and walking him several times a day. But then the move fell through, and Baxter stayed with the family he'd known most of his life.

Solo is the 3rd dog. Several weeks ago my brother emailed that Solo, a sweet Baja hound, had been abandoned by his gringo owners. Andy thought Solo would be the perfect dog for me. I fell in love immediately.
But still, I hesitated. I spent a week thinking about Solo, imagining him in my home and heart, and I was blessed with learning much about myself. Here are the highlights:
  • The email and picture of Solo came hours after I learned of my Uncle Buddy's death, which drew a firm line between my love of animals and my Uncle, who in many ways cultivated that love.
  • My brother and my son reminded me of the unique love a dog gives, which is undoubtedly a thing a long for.
  • When Cindy stopped letting the decision be all mine and joined whole-heartedly in imagining Solo as our dog, the picture of him in our home grew vivid and alive. I could really feel what it would mean to grow our family with the presence of this dog. The reality was wonderful and also sobering.
  • Several weeks ago, I wrote in my journal that I planned to radically change the priorities in my life in 2013. Solo was a test of what that meant to me, for adding him to my life would certainly be a radical change. But suddenly this morning I knew that what I meant by radical change was letting go of wanting and making more space in my life.
I wrote to my brother and his wife saying I declined the offer of Solo. As much as I appreciated being their choice and as much as I wanted him, I knew I needed to look a different way.

A few minutes later, I read this poem by a writer I studied with in graduate school. Some how it seemed to resonate prophetically for better or worse with my decision. 

by Paul Lisicky

That silly retriever. He doesn't go to the two guys looking right at him, beaming him awake with concentrated joy. Not at all: he goes straight to the man with his head turned to the left, who could care less about doggy behavior and isn't the least bit stirred by the snout parked in the knee and the wagging hind parts. And that's it: the physics of the known world. Which is why the trees look better when they're left unwatered, and the birds actually prefer it when you don't sing back to them. And the holy man crossing the street with the black brim hat? He knows better than to pick up what he's dropped and lift his face to the mountains. Take it from him, friend. You probably wouldn't even want it if the light hit you in your head.