"I write so that my handful of pebbles, cast into still waters, will create a ripple."

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Our Grandmothers, Ourselves

   This is an excerpt from Branches on the Conejo: Leaving the Soil After Five Generations, my memoir celebrating life in (then) the rural Southern California community of Thousand Oaks.                             

We daughters of the soil bear a long and affectionate link to the past. When most of us left home for the glamour and the financial opportunity of the city, we didn’t understand that we were abandoning our rural heritage. We thought we could escape the drudgery of chores and save up a nest egg for retirement. We never meant to sever the link. Now we baby boomers have become grandmothers, viewing the past through lens of wisdom. And we are torn.  

We think of ourselves as the last generation to be reared under the expectation that hard work will be rewarded. We work at town jobs but drive a tractor on Saturday mornings. We daydream of silk lingerie, but opt for a new pair of Wranglers. We help castrate sheep, but wear gloves to protect our nail polish. Some of us marry city boys and spend our lives trying to figure out why some things make us so cantankerous.

Still too close to the old ways, we see little reason to trade our values for others that seem artificially slick and calculated. We accept progress with a sigh, pick and choose what we will embrace.

We help raise sheep and cattle on our five-acre suburban plots while we work full time jobs in town. We grow peaches and apples and spend our weekends canning them into Mason jars before returning to our town jobs. We can’t understand why our children won’t help in the family garden, why our children and grandchildren have rejected our belief in hard work and have replaced it with confidence in a New World Economy. Our advice, our spirituality, our way of life seems archaic. We see our community becoming a service economy where no one wants to be the servant.

Our children think we are dinosaurs, fools for our work ethic and our slavish devotion to the old ways, and maybe we are. We seem to be caught in a schizophrenic blur between the old and the new.

We distrust bio-engineered food and altered milk. We remember when things tasted real. Many of us can still milk a cow. We recall our grandmother’s roses and geraniums before the nursery industry hybridized their scent away. We recall when trees were planted in both male and female varieties, the females making a mess in the yards with their pods and debris. But they attracted the pollen that now floats uselessly in the air. Now we sneeze and take our allergy medicine, and medicate our children’s asthma. We recall that the old days were healthier.

We study the photographs of our ancestors and we notice that hardly anyone was fat. We remember the Fifties, when sodas, flavored drink mixes, white bread and potato chips came into our diets, when sugar became synonymous with a mother’s love. We remember school prayer, spankings, being sent outside to play, and having to change into play clothes. We remember twice a week baths, and saying ‘thank you’, and calling our parent’s friends Mister and Missus instead of by their first names.

Now we are hounded by the guilt of our abandonment. Things are out of kilter and we suspect that we are to blame. Our grandparents’ photographs remind us that we forgot their lessons along the way. They were disciplined in a way that we are not, focused in a way that we have lost.

True, theirs was a world of fewer choices. I doubt, given the diversity of our temptations, they would have done any better than we have. But the fact is, we failed to heed their maxim: Waste not, want not. Maybe we are bracing ourselves for the consequences.

What about you? Anything resonate with you? 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

35 Rules for Living a Happy, Spiritual Life

Here’s something to reflect on as we move into a new season.  

  1. Do you have a generous countenance or do you hoard?
  2. Do you let go or must you always control?
  3. Are you courageous or too scared to go forward?
  4. Do you hope or do you despair?
  5. Do you recognize the abundance in life or do you see only the scarcity?
  6. Do you put your trust in Jesus or in politicians?
  7. Do you love or live in fear?
  8. Do you take time to notice things or are you always in too big of a hurry to care?
  9. Do you love people or are things your treasure?
  10. Do you look people in the eye or stare at the ground as you pass?
  11. Do you celebrate life or its total misery?
  12. So you see life as a great adventure or is it all about fate?
  13. Do you know God or just know about God?
  14. Do you go the extra mile or skip corners when nobody is looking?
  15. Do you say “yes” to people and then “no” later?
  16. Do you give whenever you can or withdraw on false excuses?
  17. Do you trust or are you suspicious of others motives?
  18. Are you humble when you make a mistake or do you get defensive?
  19. Do you stand for the truth even when it’s unpopular or do you cower to peer pressure?
  20. Do you seek forgiveness when you are guilty of serious wrong or do you shrug it off?
  21. Can you laugh at yourself or are you always serious?
  22. Do you bless the stranger you encounter or avoid them in fear?
  23. Do you listen to God or just yourself?
  24. Do you give with no expectations or with strings attached?
  25. Do you speak well of others or spread gossip that destroys?
  26. Do you praise God in all things or always complain to him?
  27. So you strive to do heroic things or do you frequently play the victim?
  28. Do you use you power in order to give it away or use it to subdue others?
  29. Do you seek solutions or must you be right and others be wrong?
  30. Do you treat others with the dignity they deserve or do you mistreat them?
  31. Are you living your life to the fullest or are you afraid inside?
  32. Do your actions demonstrate that you value and respect the dignity of life or do you put your personal desires ahead of the most vulnerable?
  33. Do you know that God has won the war or are you overcome by battles?
  34. Do you know God’s forgiveness or feel that your sin could never be forgiven?
  35. Do you know how gifted you are or are you always self-critical?

Borrowed from my priest’s sermon this morning. Thank you Fr. Bill Holtzinger, St. Anne Parish, Grants Pass, OR

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Here's to Friends Far and Near

Four  months have passed since I took flight from my comfortable old zip code in California.  
It's starting to sink in that I was pretty hard on my friends when I announced that we had found our dream property in another state. In retrospect I was rather blasĂ© over my quick-and-easy lifestyle change.  I filled every conversation with fun facts about my new house and community. My friends and family made brave faces and fixed frozen smiles while I assured everyone that we would stay in touch and that I would be back often to visit.

Truth is, my move hurt my family and friends more than it hurt me.  

Come on now, let’s be honest. I’ve lost friends to the moving van. I know what it feels like to be left behind with vague promises that “we’ll stay in touch” while they replace me with new friends whose dogs wag at their knock. I get it—despite their smiles, my friends feel like they’ve been dumped.  

I’m not trying to be egotistical here, simply stating a fact. I chose to leave—nothing forced me. For months now the task of settling into a new life consumed me and I've hardly looked back. But now I’m settled in. My address labels have arrived.  I’ve memorized the aisles of five different grocery stores. I belong to a critique group. I’m even taking long walks along the country roads again.       

Last night a new neighbor invited us over for a “meet the neighbor” dinner party. Sitting in the room with smiling strangers I began to miss the solidarity of the friends I left behind. I began to wonder about the structure of friendship.

Here’s what I’ve got so far—My friends fit into four categories:

Long distance friends that I meet at conferences or writers groups. We share mutural interests. We connect with a stroke of the keyboard. These are project friends like the one I phoned yesterday in the hospital. We spent ten minutes talking about her health and another ten talking about our current projects and we were both fine with that.

Old friends who share my history.  These are the ones who surprise me with an email out of the blue, or a card, and make my day. The ones on my Christmas card list. The ones I know will spend the night on their way through town. Comfort friends.

Old neighbors and former co-workers. These are the ones I seem to run into every time I visit my old house. The ones I meet at the hamburger joint where I’m picking up a quick bite. These are the friends that add dimension to my life, remind me of my past. Pepper and salt friends. I’ve run into a couple of them in my new town and the serendipitous moment is breathtaking.

Developing Friendships. A friend reminded me of this one. For some reason, the last year at my old home produced some of the most satisfying friendships of my life. I found soul sisters with whom I connected on several levels. They are the ones that hurt the most to leave and I pray that we can find ways to sustain this fragile connection. Why now? was the question I asked myself as I packed and skipped town like a suitcase salesman with an unpaid bill. Guilt is a tough master.

Family members We shared an assumption that things would never change and now I appreciate my family more when I see them. My husband and I moved away from our children and we’re already making plans for extended visits. I have a new camera so I can Skype. I spend the night at my siblings and we talk over the dinner table.

Maybe there's a category I missed, but I'm still a little numb from the move. It’s been harder than I thought, living in two worlds. I need my friends to step forward and help me out here. I’m haunted by the good friends that disappeared in the past while I assumed they had forgotten all about me. The truth is—they probably needed reminding.

—like the anonymous saying:

 Make new friends, but keep the old. One is Silver and the other is Gold. 

Do you have anything to add about hanging on to old friends? 

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Sweet-tooth's Survival Manual

I used to wonder what would happen if the connection to the grocery store was broken and my family was forced to survive on its ownEarlier this summer we picked up our household and moved to Oregon to find out.

We’ve only lived in our new home for a few months, but every day I marvel at the way the earth provides. At the risk of seeming boastful, I just need to share.

July was blueberry season. A neighbor showed me how to cut gallon milk jugs into picking tubs with a length of clothesline looped through the handle. I hung one around the necks of my two granddaughters and we picked until our lips were purple. We bagged them in gallon freezer bags for winter smoothies. We made freezer jam and gave a lot to friends because it was just too fun to stop picking! (The girls are two and five so the thornless bushes were a big hit.) Full disclosure--their mom and dad helped.

 In late July the wretched brambles that cover the countryside came alive with temporary recompense for their annoying existence. Everywhere I looked I found Himalayan blackberries just begging to be picked. Even though they sport life-threatening thorns, the bushes hung across the road, along the creeks and rivers, juicy berries sweet enough I didn’t need to add sugar to my pies. I started waking at 6:00 A.M. so I would head out to the meadow and fill my jugs with fresh berries for breakfast.

Every time I walked down to get my mail the letters came home stained with berry juice because I couldn’t resist. My fingernails were stained berry blue for a solid month and there was nothing I could do about it. (If there’s a way to pick berries in gloves, I haven’t found it yet.)

By the time I got my hands bleached, the peach tree in the orchard threatened to split under the weight of its bounty. The week we arrived we propped the limbs and thinned the fruit and we probably saved the poor mother-trunk's scrawny life.

By mid-July I peeled the skin off a peach with my teeth and ate it in three bites.

I picked the tree clean in slow stages every time a new batch ripened, an obsessive-compulsive activity that replaced writing for the entire summer. Finally I left a few for the birds and hornets and spread the last batch out on the patio to ripen. And on Canning Day I processed every pint jar I owned with peaches and made the rest into freezer jam.

Praise the synchronicity of nature. God must indeed be a woman because everything came ripe in stages. 

By mid September the apples and pears in our orchard began dropping. My tree didn’t have many, but I found enough abandoned apple trees to make wonderful sunshine-yellow applesauce with a combination of apples that needed just a hint of cinnamon.

I used one of those hand-crank peelers on another ten pounds and fried them in a skillet with a half-cup of brown sugar, a half cube of butter and a shake (more or less) of 6 different spices—cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, pumpkin pie spice, allspice, cloves. Easy-peasy side dish for a Sunday pork roast. I froze most of the ringlets in baggies for future roasts.

 Big discovery—pear sauce is better than applesauce! When I ran out of jars, I quartered and peeled  ten pounds of pears and boiled them in two cups water until soft (covered pan), then tossed in a handful of brown sugar and some cinnamon and while still hot, smashed the fruit with a potato masher. To die for.  When it was cool I ladled the sauce into small baggies and froze them flat on a cookie sheet. After they were frozen I slipped them into one gallon-size freezer bag for frost protection. This way I don’t have a dozen small bags sliding around the freezer.

The beauty of using the land’s bounty is that you can slap-dash bake without worrying about “ruining” the recipe. I mean, have you ever tasted a pie you didn’t like? It it’s too sour, add ice cream. If it’s runny, so much the better. If it’s too thick, well, some people prefer it that way. I’m a lazy cook, but I have fun. As the oldest daughter in a family of nine hungry mouths, I learned early that you can’t mess up dessert. It just isn’t possible!

Here’s a couple of no-fail recipes—

Fruit crisp—fill a square or rectangular baking dish with small pieces of fruit. (smaller is better than quartered fruit. Berries can be left whole.) For the small dish, add a cup or so of water, a little (1 tsp.) cornstarch, a quarter-cup sugar and boil until it reaches z full boil. Don't worry if it's not thick. Double for the larger pan. Stir into the fruit. For the topping—equal parts flour, brown sugar and quick oats and ½ cube of cold butter, crumbled along with the dry ingredients. Don’t worry about the calories because you can’t make it crumble without the butter. I add a dash of salt and some cinnamon. Bake until the juice bubbles and the top is brown.

I add left-over pancake batter (gluten free) to a baking dish of cut up fruit and bake it with raisins, nuts and a little brown sugar for 30 minutes or until thick. I love it for tea or breakfast. My grandfather used to pour cream over his.    

Now my counters are lined with pint jars filled with fruit that I got for nothing. (Truth, I bought a few packages of Ball jar lids and a 5-lb. bag of organic sugar for the canned pears because they were a little tart.) Oh, and a few dozen more pint jars, but that's an investment, not an expense.    

As I write, the grapes in my vineyard are getting sweeter by the day. I have no idea what kind they are, purple with seeds, but they'll make juice for winter breakfasts until I learn how to make wine. All I have to do is steam, strain and squeeze.  It’s walnut season. I’ve collected a 50-lb. sack filled with English walnuts and I’m going to spend my evenings in the patio cracking them. In a wet-wood pinch I can use the cracked shells for firestarter--just mix with some dryer lint and a little glue and place in individual egg carton sections. My sister gave me the idea.   

My mom sent me instructions. I’m collecting acorns and I’m going to be making acorn meal as soon as I pick up enough. They stay around because we don't have much competition from squirrels, only the rain.  

My husband's a hunter. The Canadian geese are starting to land in the pasture. The wild turkeys march across the lawn and fill their gullets with our crickets so I feel entitled to one of them when it’s time to think about Thanksgiving. Five does and a couple of bucks have spent the summer stripping everything they could reach from the fruit trees. They wait while I shake the apples from the tree and eat everything I don’t bag, including the trimmings from the peeled fruit. We’ll be having venison for the holidays.

So this is what I’ve gleaned off the land so far. Do I feel better about the end of the world? You better believe I do. If I have to, I can survive on jelly and fruit. I’m waiting to see what the next season brings. I picked up a pinecone to harvest the nuts, but most of them were already open. I got there too late for pine nuts this year, but there’s still firewood in the woods for the taking. And in the spring I’ll find the best spots for miner’s lettuce. 

Anybody else out there a survivalist tiger? Do share.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


 Remember these? If you're over fifty you probably will. My list definitely reflects my Catholic upbringing. I'm surprised how many of these formed my outlook about life, and how many of them I used on my own children.  

My chores are finished. Anything else before I go play?
Shame on me!
It’s a personal point of honor.
That goes against my grain.
I saved up for it.
I fudged. (I goofed.)
Thanks, but I’ll wait my turn.
It’s not urgent (I can wait.)
This too will pass. 
Offer it up. 
You're a saint for doing that. (My Catholic mother was big on these.) 
Let’s take turns.
We’ll have to make do.
This is more than my fair share.
Let’s pray on it.
In due time.
I’m sorry, Sir  (Ma’am!)
Take it, you deserve it more.
A stitch in time saves nine.
Let’s tidy up before Dad comes home.
Cut it down and make it over (reuse someone else's clothing.) 
Clean your plate. Kids in China are starving
If you’re not here at dinnertime, you don’t eat.
Sorry, we don’t own a television.
If you’re hungry, eat a slice of bread.
If you’re not tired you haven’t worked hard enough.
I can’t—my folks would kill me.
Time to hit the deck.
Time to hit the hay.
Rise and shine.
Live and let live.
I’ll sacrifice for the greater good.
It’s none of my business so I won’t ask!
I really shouldn’t (so I won’t!)
Here—you have it.
It’s good enough for me.
Keep a dime between your knees.
Act like a lady
Pretty is as pretty does.
Nice girls don't
Treat your date like she’s your sister.
He (she) has cooties.
Gosh, dog-gone-it, golly, phooey.
Jiminy Christmas.
Careful, these have to last.
School shoes, play shoes & dress shoes
Play clothes for after school
Crackers and milk for supper.
Forgive and forget.
Because you’re not old enough.
Because I said so.
Not now (it’s almost suppertime.)
Wait until your father gets home.
I have to set an example.
There'll be plenty of time for that when you grow up.
I broke it so I’ll replace it.
I’ve done worse (you’re forgiven.)
I sewed it myself.

How about your favorite sayings. Any I've forgotten? 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Three Things About Moving

All my life I thought that having deep roots was the best possible thing. I loved being a Native Daughter of the Golden West. But when I traveled, I saw new cities where I wanted to live—in Italy, and France and Southern Oregon.  

I looked around and saw a whole world waiting to be explored. But to live there I had to leave here. A dilemma, for sure. I know I’m not alone, wanting both worlds. I started questioning my old values. And once I started, I couldn't stop. 

If enough people believe something, does that make it so? Take, for example, the sayings: "Change is hard." "What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger." What if change is exciting and renewing and all things are possible? What if lack of change slowly sucks the life, one cell at a time?   

But what about huge change? Would it kill me or make me stronger? I think the answer is, a little of each. 

A couple of things have surprised me about moving so far from “home.” One is how much I admire my husband. Like Adam and Eve, we are the First Couple, relying on each other in this strange and beautiful paradise. I watch him with fresh eyes as he builds shelves and repairs gutters. He tends to a thousand details that will make our house strong in the winter. He works without expecting to be noticed, but I do. And he makes me feel like Eve.

Another surprise is how much boredom I had been carrying. Everything’s fun again. I’m a fresh helium balloon, filled with possibilities.  Something has been removed and the vacuum is being refilled. 

In a new kitchen with top-grade appliances and lots of counter space, I’m cooking turnovers, blackberry pies, ribs and roast chicken. I bought myself a Le Creuset roasting pan and I’m taking such pride in cooking. I have my neighbors over for buffalo stew and homemade bread with new blackberry jam. And it’s not just a hasty meal, it’s an event because they’re our new friends, a bridge to the community.

On the flip-side, I’m surprised at how heavy I feel some days. I love it here, but everything seems so serious. I drive with my tongue pressed against my cheek, concentrating. I pore over newspaper ads looking for clues for the best shops. I analyze, memorize and when everything is too much, I hibernate for a few days and start all over again.

A film maker friend is nudging me to show him product, a script we’re working on, and I am so grounded that it’s hard to be absurd and witty. Maybe that’s why I’m blogging about that today—a promise to get airborne again and feel the wind.      

Are you airborne or grounded? Be the wind under our wings and share your thoughts.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Trading Paradise For a New Zip Code

Six weeks ago my husband and I joined the exodus of Baby Boomers out of  California.

Leaving our state was a wrenching emotional decision, but the hardest part was explaining our decision to friends and family. We mentioned a slower lifestyle, a desire for four seasons, fairer tax rates, better hunting and fishing. It’s hard for them to understand. I get it. I’ve lost friends and family to the moving van.

So why did we trade paradise for newer zip code?

I’ve been a resident of the Central Coast long enough to watch the county fill with new Southland arrivals armed with passion for volunteerism, winemaking and dining out that transformed our sleepy burg into a world class wine region (at least until the water runs out.) Together, my husband and I have 120 years of history in the area. While we were rearing our family, most of our relatives lived within a thirty-minute drive. On holidays, aunts and uncles dropped by with gifts.

But, with all that familiarity the short track in our brain got lazy. It had already stored every decision we would ever need. We had our medical, church and shopping tracks down pat. We’d traveled every road on the Central Coast in car, truck, Jeep and motorcycle. We were living without wonderment, in a daze of half-interest and putting things off until tomorrow.    

 Always we yearned to see the other side of the mountain. We’d spent years traveling the West looking for that special place. Our family thought we were lookie-loos as we drove through Washington, Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and made appointments with realtors to show us their “banana belts.” Some we liked: Chilawack, BC, Coleville, WA, Garden Valley and Boise, ID, Grand Junction and Fort Collins, COHelena, MT, Tensleep, WY. Some seemed foolhardy, and none seemed like home.       

Then one day we saw it. Someone produced escrow papers and I managed, in a single stroke of the pen, to overrule my every trepidation. Now we have a lovely house with a woods, and pasture for three feeder calves. We have an orchard, a chicken coop and a mini vineyard. Ag and forest exemptions. Our insurance and tax bills are a fraction of what they used to be. And no sales tax!

As perfect as it is, the house is only a backdrop for the movie of our lives where every sunrise brings a smile and every cloudburst catches me outside doing the happy dance. My brain is filled with street names and utility companies. My internet provider involves a receiver on our red cypress pointed at a tower two miles away. The measly local newspaper arrives in the afternoon, filled with news about people I don’t know. The neighbor’s dogs bristle and snarl.

I grapple with huge gulps of silence in a house that needs laughter and I wonder if I will ever have enough friends to fill it. The first week the silence was so profound that I could hear deer nibbling grass outside. Now I hear the distant train, turkeys stalking through dried leaves. The orchard fills with fruit, ripens and droops with peaches, plums and pears.

I’m afraid to close my eyes for fear I’ll miss something. The irises bloomed and disappeared before dandelions took over the lawns. The meadow grass ripened and a neighbor cut and baled it before we could get our tractor moved. This morning had a tang of fall and a flock of geese flew into our meadow while I picked blackberries at the springhouse.

Before the move I toted tons of valuables to the thrift shop. I would probably cry if I could remember what I gave away. But apparently none of it was necessary for the me that I'm morphing into. I'm using this time to reinvent myself. (More on that next time.) But I make it a rule to meet someone new every day—preferably over a meal or coffee. I’ve rediscovered the joy of living in the moment.

No doubt when the days turn gray and damp, I will pine for the gorgeous Central Coast. I will probably grumble about the fog and pop Vitamin D. I will suffer the indignities of being snowed in. (We’re in a banana belt. Two feet of snow. Melts out the next morning, I’m told.)  I’ll teach classes in writing memoir. I’ll write another book. I’ll publish the first in my historical novel series set in SLO County

I was afraid I would feel like I’d lost part of myself when I moved. Instead, I’ve gained a bigger world. It's more authentic, living in the moment. I hope I never forget the lesson.

Has anyone else experienced a live-changing move? Care to share?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

When Appliances Break Down—A Survivor’s Guide

Go on, life-hit me with your best shot.

I’m studying the synchronicity of household appliances that are failing at the same time. Breakdowns seem to be “my thing” this month and I’m contemplating the downside of inconvenience versus the feeling of freedom from things electrical, followed all to quickly by a heightened sense of appreciation when they're all working again.

My exercise began with a simple change in propane suppliers. The old company charges $85 to drain the tank if it is more than 5% full. Ripoff! It seemed easy to monitor our usage, but since one of the reasons we were changing was because the gauge didn't function, we underestimated. Our tank ran dry on Memorial Day weekend. No stove or hot water heater for three days.  

Days earlier we hired a handyman to do some odd jobs, one of which was to put in a new kitchen sink. He was buttoning the job when he discovered that the new faucet was defective. Since we had to let the sink adhesive season for two days we agreed to a replacement faucet shipped by overnight mail. Overnight became three days without water in the kitchen.

Couple of days later the microwave bid adios in a hale of fire and sparks.

Then the black DIRECT satellite box sent out a stench of singed electrical wire and everything went fuzzy.

A week later the growl in my computer expanded to intermittent freezing and a cacophony of whirls, grunts and agonizing groans. What I thought was a bad fan turned out to be a warning that my hard drive was crashing.

The  following week we were traveling north in our pickup, towing a trailer toward a truck stop with $3.89 diesel a mile ahead when the truck sputtered to a stop. The computer claimed we had forty-five miles of fuel left, but an empty tank was the least serious scenario of our choices. It was and we did, but running out of diesel involved having the system recharged. The AAA tow truck driver couldn't do it, so we had to be loaded onto a tow truck and the trailer towed to the nearest Dodge dealership.

So that’s been my month. I’d like to say it’s been hell, but actually I enjoyed every adventure.
I’ve learned a lot about myself through these trails. Mostly that I like living a slower-paced existence and that change is fun. That conveniences don’t define me or limit me as much as I feared. The primitive woman emerged and is having a great time living with less.    

The lack of a stove and running water gave me some well-deserved days off from the kitchen. We ate out a couple of times, had paper plate picnics with sandwiches and cold cereal. We peeled oranges and listened to the birds singing. I suspect we ate less. One night we drank Margaritas for dinner with guacamole and chips. Thank God the coffee maker still worked.

The missing faucet gave me a chance to appreciate all the things I take for granted. I thought about the women and girls who have to walk three or more miles to the river and risk rape every trip. All I had to do was fill a pot with hot water from the bathtub spout and count my blessings while I washed dishes in my pasta pot. Hand washing settled me.

I’m still without a microwave and happily steaming veggies and boiling water. I use my wok and sing while I cook. I’ve missed the satisfaction of taking my time.  

The replacement satellite box arrived a few days ago and we haven’t hooked it up yet. Who knew that  sunsets happen during my favorite program. That neighbors walk their dogs while I’m tuned to the tube. I’m not saying that I’ll NEVER hook up again, but for now, it’s nice.

The truck debacle allowed me to watch my husband be a hero with reflectors and road flares. We rode in a tow truck like kids, and chatted with the parts guy at the Dodge dealership while his mechanics fixed the truck, added five gallons of diesel and refused any money.

I’ve intended to replace my computer for years. It was given to me nine years ago by a retired geologist from Nevada who had used it for five years. It was time. I unplugged the old soldier and phoned my computer guy and he’s building me a new one.

What I learned this month is to take a deep breath and give thanks when life changes directions. I’m strangely happier and relaxed. Life is better. Go figure. 

What’s  it like when something you depend on breaks? 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Three Ultimate Gifts from the Heart.

Ever think about the gifts we give and receive--what they say about us as humans? Here's a list of alternatives that will change lives. 

I just finished reading a commentary by Nicholas D. Kristof, columnist for the New York Times. His post Mother’s Day article is about saving the lives of moms. Specifically it’s about fistulas, a consequence of childbirth when girls, most often third-world girls, get raped and impregnated when their bodies are small or malnourished.

The details aren’t pretty, but they’re even less so for the girls who are ostracized by their communities when their fecal matter and urine oozes in an uncontrollable stream from a rupture in their vagina caused by childbirth trauma.

Kristof calls it the leprosy of the 21st Century. The consequences are long-lasting: no prom dates, no jobs at McBurger. Death by self-induced starvation, infection or hyena attacks orchestrated by villagers including family and friends.   

 The girls are taken to a hut at the edge of their communities and left to die. Some manage to crawl or walk to clinics supported by American donors and staffed by compassionate doctors who perform a simple surgery.  

Ironically, I read about fistulas right after my daughter Sam called to tell me that she has donated in my name to an organization that repairs cleft palates in babies.

Right after I sent a donation to an organization that provides goats to African villagers in my mother’s name. Great minds think alike.

Now I’m sending a donation to the fistula foundation on behalf of both my daughters. A perfect Mother’s Day Trifecta.     

Here are some links. (Note--there are others. Check them all out.)

(Author’s note: Gift ideas are suitable for all occasions and are not limited by gender or age. Comes in all sizes. Items described don’t require exchanging, packing or dry cleaning.)

http://worldwidefistulafund.org/ $450 buys an entire fistula surgery and changes a life.  For $150 we can provide her with social reintegration and job skills. For $25 we can give a girl a new dress after her surgery.

Operationsmile.org . (888) 377-2289. or Smiletrain.org .  $250 buys a new smile for a baby born with a cleft palate. Our donation comes with a Bonus Offer—after the operation the village will no longer assume that the repaired, beautiful three-year-old is possessed by the devil. 

Worldvision.org . The gift catalogue is online. Browse among the options that include a goat, three chickens or two ducks. Gifts benefit AIDS widows or women abandoned by their job-seeking husbands, or grandmothers left with the care of all their grandchildren. $75 buys a goat to milk, breed and develop into a small herd.

Let’s add to the list. Share your best big-hearted suggestions. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

California Casual--Is Rudeness the New Rule?

In California, we have a different way of doing things.  

. For us, RSVP are four random letters that appear on the bottom of invitations, indicating nothing. An invitation means that someone is having an event and seeks your commitment. If you're naive or new to our way of doing things, you should understand that no one holds you to your promise.

As everyone in California knows, an invitation is a mere technicality. The game plan is to throw it on the counter and fuggetaboutit! No worries. The hostess will give you a ring on the day before the party to see if you’re coming. You can decide then.

Weddings, intimate dinner parties—makes no difference.

According to my friend, no-shows are very common in Santa Barbara. Yes, even for dinner parties. People respond "yes" and then wait to see if something better comes along. She blames the practice on the "Biz (the film industry.) And it gets worse the closer you are to Hollywood.

Makes sense. Why waste your time at a "B" dinner in your honor if you can tag along to an "A" event and gawk at the movie stars. Even the concept of "A" and "B" comes from California. Remember the old Disneyland ride ticket books? Who wouldn't rather ride the Matterhorn than the train?

So I live in California. Time to bring this around to me.

I have a writer’s critique group on alternate Tuesdays. This group is new and just beginning to jell. Like any newborn, it needs attention. It helps to know who will be there. I requested that everyone RSVP, and they did. As of last Friday six plus me made seven. Yeah!

Tuesday morning the house is clean. Snacks are ready. Husband is fed and out of the house. And the calls start coming in. One member has a sore throat. One is still in jammies. A third one has slept late and can make the last half. The others are no-shows. And that’s when the idea for this blog starts.

As a new writer, for three years I used to drive 70 miles round trip every other Monday to attend a critique group that started at nine. I scheduled my life around that group! The moderator was a retired grade school teacher who ran that group like her classroom. I was terrified of getting “the look” if I walked in three minutes late.

No coincidence that in the years I belonged I wrote a bazillion short stories and essays and submitted them to markets all over the US and Canada. Had thirty acceptances (a 1/23 ratio. Not bad for fiction in the era before e-publishing.) I wore out three Writer’s Market books in the process and won ten awards. Wrote two novels. I quit the group when members started writing travel stories and essays and I was the only fiction writer left.

Point is, that critique group launched me. That’s what I hope to do for the newbies in my group.

Clearly the fault is mine. I need to develop “the look”. Tough love. Next week we’ll revamp the rules and get down to business. As soon as I finish writing this, I’ll dig out my cousin’s wedding invitation from the junk on the counter and send my RSVP. She even included a stamp.

Hope it’s not too late.

Anybody have a similar experience or want to add to the discussion? Here's your chance. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Five Steps for Organizing the Closet After You Say Goodbye to 4” Heels

Feet Hurt? Is your closet overflowing with clothes you never wear? A plan for what to save and what to dump when you start to dress for comfort

Going through my closet this week I began to realize that I'm a clothes hoarder. Even if I haven’t worn it in 10 years, I feel physically ill at the idea of parting with any of it. Sure, I watch “What Not to Wear”, but the problem is how do I finesse into a (ahem) Woman of a Certain Age.

I asked my Magic Mirror and this is what she whispered to me:

Young women dress to emphasize their assets and their hair. Middle-age women dress to minimize their deficits. Older women dress to match their shoes.

Sound harsh? Think about it.

Somewhere in the fifties the tendons and bones in the foot soften. Certain foot bones are the most frequently broken bones for women after fifty. That’s when podiatrists’ numbers get put on the speed-dial.

Out of necessity, shoes become less fashion statement and more a comfort accessory. It breaks our hearts to abandon this vestige of youth, but it happens.

Unfortunately, I have dresses that don’t “do” comfortable. They want a 4” heel. And nylons and a smoother. Without tough-love, those dresses will hang in the closet pretending they’re next-up for the party. Ten years will go by and still no party. Still, maybe when I’m seventy I’ll want to wear that sleeveless cocktail dress with the slit at the thigh that I didn’t even wear when it was new.

But the sad truth is, I’ve already dumped the heels.  So in order to downsize my closet and keep it real I’ve had to take a reality check. 

Here’s my plan:

Step One: Pick out the shoes I wear. Dispose of any I haven’t worn in three years. (I know, the rule is 12 months, but I’m a hoarder, remember?)

Step Two: Pair skirts, dresses and pants with the shoes they go with. Permission to pile them on the bed, the sofa, the floor. Use bronzer, pantyhose, hairdo, anything to get an accurate assessment, including daughters and husband.

Step Three: Try on everything with the shoes. If it doesn’t work, Get Rid of It. I picked the STYLE of shoe for a reason—comfort, style or because it fits my personality. When it wears out I’ll replace it with next season’s substitute, so if it doesn’t have a companion outfit now, I doubt the old shoe will ever have a love match with anything in my closet.

Step Four: Pack up the off-season clothes and shoes and store them. That way I'll have a new wardrobe in a few months. Vacuum seal sweaters so everything will pack down small. Kmart, $9.95 for three.

Step Five: When I go shopping I’ll wear the shoes I want to match. If something doesn’t, I don’t. It’s as simple as that. 

As a footnote—I won’t keep anything that needs a 10-pound weight loss to look good. I won’t pretend I’m anything I’m not. If I lose weight or change personalities, I’ll buy something new. Clothes are what I wear, not who I am. (Okay, who am I kidding?) But shoes do become what we wear, like it or not.

Am I right about this? Share your comments.  

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Easter Bunny Blues

Is there too much "Ease" in Easter? On this holiest day of the Christian calendar I feel abandoned by my family. Because I know I'm not alone, I'm sharing my angst.                                                   

Father Hercek loves a colorful congregation on Easter Sunday so I put on my brightest bonnet and take myself to church. I arrive early to celebrate in song and sermon with my sisters and brothers in Christ. By the final blessing I have hugged twenty people, have been moved to tears at little girls and boys fresh from their First Holy Communion. Songs of jubilation ring in my ears, songs of rebirth and hope and thankfulness. 
For an hour (make that an hour and a half, Father Hercek has a captive audience on holidays,) I glow like a new bride. There is nowhere on earth I would rather be on this glorious Spring morning than in church.    
Driving home I sing “Come, Worship the Lord” while my eyes fill with tears because I’m feeling embraced by the Holy Spirit. I want to share my joy with the whole world. 
Once home I step into my kitchen ready to spill out Easter blessings on my family, but no one answers my call. The household is still asleep. In the next hour they straggle out, husband, three children, young adults all. My middle daughter is exhausted from having worked a double shift at her restaurant job, The oldest has stayed up until the wee hours, catching up with cousins who are only in town for the weekend. My son is off to go motorcycle riding with another cousin. My husband is on the phone, arranging to meet a buyer for his street motorcycle, an out-of-towner on his way home.  
I call my sister to confirm lunch at my house: pork roast, applesauce, angel food cake with pink icing, but she hedges, frazzled from trying to fit everything into a busy weekend schedule. She’s staying with Mom, who has had another tiny stroke during the night, worn out from the excitement, and is too weak to make it to Mass. My sister needs to fix breakfast and watch over Mom.
Guilty because she lives four hours away, it is her turn to help.   
In the end I take off my Easter finery and join my family for a catch-as-catch-can breakfast before everyone goes off in different directions. My sixteen-year-old will eat when he returns at dusk.   
As the afternoon wanes I try to recapture the early morning's hope. Still, I can't help wonder what is wrong with us. I don’t think we’re alone. I don’t think I’m the only mother who ever felt like she’s failed in her spiritual guidance. 
As soon as they graduated my children demonstrated their "grown-up" independence by eschewing their Catholic upbringing for an extra hour of sleep.
"We're a Christian family," I remind them.  "Easter is Our Day."  It doesn't matter that I voiced my hopes the day before in hopes of an old-fashioned bring-us-together Easter morning: church and sit-down dinner.
But again this year Easter Sunday feels like a "morning after."  
For our large extended family, Good Saturday is Easter Bunny Day: a family picnic, chocolate bunnies, egg hunt and all the fun stuff.  I don't deny that I love it. We adults organize a softball game while the kids whack away at a pinata. Later we catch up on family gossip while we graze our way from grilled linguica appetizers to a whole smoked pig, all the way to homemade ice cream. This is great stuff.  It's the next day that drives me to tears. 
Is it too much to ask that my family attend Mass with me, share an hour of elation and rebirth before they go about their business? When she's rested, Mom feels the same way. During Holy Week we attended reconciliation service and vowed that this year we would attend church as a family. But once again the Easter Bunny foiled our plans.          
Now it’s Easter evening. If I feel cheated, I wonder what Jesus is feeling.

How about you? Anybody ever felt in the same boat? 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Cheap Dates on California's Central Coast

Stuck for ideas about where to go for fun?  Short on money?  There's more to do on the Central Coast than just wine tours.  Here's a whole list of ways for sweethearts to celebrate Spring! Or for old timers to celebrate the fact that they're not dead yet. Don't live in CA? Substitute your own fave's.   

Hike the trail and watch the whales at Montana de Oro State Park

Picnic along the Nacimiento River

Catch the wildflowers at Shell Creek Road off Hwy 58 near Santa Margarita 

Take in the National Geographic Theater at Hearst Castle and visit the sea lions further up Hwy 1

Visit the gardens at the Cambria Pines Lodge then walk Moonstone Beach

Take a weekend drive to the Pozo Saloon for lunch or dinner. 

Visit the Museum of Natural History at Morro Bay State Park

Drive to the end of the Lopez Canyon rainforest.

Walk around Atascadero Lake.  Bring bread crumbs for the ducks

Dance barefoot on smooth concrete in the dark

Make fudge

Visit an animal shelter or a pet store

Wash and wax your cars together

Catch a movie at the Sunset Drive-In.  Arrive early for a tailgate BBQ

Go treasure hunting at the Nipomo Swap Meet

Attend services at different churches and synagogues

Pick up coupons in any hotel lobby
 Visit all the local beaches: Avila, Cayucos, San Simeon, Pismo

Hunt for sand dollars at low tide near Morro Rock

Go roller skating or bowling

Go paintballing at Central Coast Paint Ball Park or Franklin's Pond

Serenade each other on guitar/harmonica/kazoo

Climb Bishop's Peak

Go swimming at Franklin's Pond in Paso Robles, Sycamore Mineral Springs or Paso Robles Hot Springs

Play tag after dark in a park with Glo Sticks or flashlights

Read poetry on the steps of City Hall after business hours

Catch the moonrise over the hills of Shandon and have dinner at the Parkfield Inn

Fly kites on the summit of Hwy 46 West, on the way to Cambria

Hike the trail to the Indian relics at San Simeon State Campground

Take a Sierra Club hike on Saturday mornings

Ride bicycles to the beach

 Fish off of a pier

Visit the Missions at S.L.O., San Miguel, San Antonio

Drive the Nacimiento-Ferguson Road from Fort Hunter Liggett to Hwy 1

Visit the PG&E Community Center

Take a tour of art museums and art shops

Listen to old records on a vintage phonograph

Visit the Dalidet Adobe and the Jack House in SLO, the Rios Caledonia in San Miguel

Visit the Charles Paddock Zoo in Atascadero

Take your town's historical walking tour

 Take free golf lessons at your local golf course on Saturday

Pick your own fruit at Cal Poly or local berry farms

Hike the boardwalk at the Guadelupe Dunes

Give each other a foot massage

 I've had these and a million other adventures in my own back yard. What can you add about your own back yard? 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Ten Tips for Marriage: Advice from the Maritally Seasoned

 Here's a few rules my sister and I made up one night while we were drinking wine. Sixty three years of marriage between us. We call them "Tips for Transitioning between Honeymoon and Honey-do."

1.        Tools are important to men.  When you borrow something from his tool chest, leave the tool drawer open so you’ll remember where to return it when you’re finished.

2.    Before you disturb anything, study the method he uses for storing his tools.  Know whether he sorts by order of earliest purchased, (FIFO), biggest-to-smallest (BIGO) or pile-on-the-workbench-and-search (SWEARO).
3.      A real man never borrows. If he plans to use a tool more than once he'll purchase the Professional Model with every attachment. No matter how much it costs, his argument is that “It’ll pay for itself in time.”
4.      It is a far graver thing you do by leaving his screwdriver on your kitchen counter than for him to forget it on the driveway so it punctures your tire when you run over it.

5.      When he offers to take over a chore, put it in contract form and try to get his signature notarized.  “Paper Trail” may seem like an ugly phrase now, but after the honeymoon, good intentions dry up faster than an open bottle of cinnamon body oil.
6.      Get him to landscape your yard before he signs up for a gym.  Try to convince him that a good push mower will work the same ab cluster as a rowing machine.  A shovel will substitute for a stairmaster.  Pulling weeds-two-three-four will stretch the calves.
7.      Before planting anything precious or expensive in your yard, observe his path and avoid those locations.  Men, cattle and deer make paths. Don’t try to change nature.

8.       He possesses the remote control as surely as you own your grandmother’s pearls.  He won’t expect to wear your jewelry, leave his remote alone.

9.      The toilet seat is the first to know you’re now married.  Till death do you part, the lid will stay up.  It’s the man’s trade-off for wearing a ring.

10.    A man’s memory is fail-proof. If he doesn’t remember making a mistake, then it's your fault. This rule moves up the list with each anniversary.
Bonus Hint: a married man keeps his dirty socks on the floor so they’re easier for you to find.

That’s my advice.  Now I have a question.  Could one of you young brides explain why all my honeymoon lingerie shrunk?   

 Got any to add to the list? Or rules for women? Thanks for commenting.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Thank-You to the Universe for my Zihuatanejo Connection

Shameless promoter that I am, this essay is entered in Sonia Marsh's Gutsy Story competition. I'd love you to drop by and vote for me. I  write about this trip and other experiences of the Social and Sexual 
Revolution in my baby boomer memoir, Ordinary Aphrodite

The flight is on time as it descends over the basin rim into the desert. Phoenix in mid-April is green golf courses and swimming pools surrounded by alfalfa fields and sprinklers. I pull my eyes from the magazine I’m pretending to read. My hands are trembling from the apprehension of meeting my oldest daughter, Sam, to board a plane to Zihuatanejo. I know she has not agreed to this trip without persuasion.
The trip itself is the result of many hands. God has a plan.
In the taxiing plane I hear my friend’s stern voice, two months earlier, brooking no dissent:  “Just hear me out before you say anything. I’ve booked you into a writer’s retreat in Zihuatenajo for late April. You need to go. You’re not writing and you need to be. Go and let it change your life.”
That phone call had frozen me with apprehension. Mexico—alone? From the way my stomach dropped at the idea I knew I was not brave enough to go alone. My heart, my instinct, called for my daughter.
She had voiced her objections—a single week of vacation built up, not enough money—but beyond the stated, I heard her apprehension about spending a week together. And her fears weren’t without reason.
I was fresh off the farm, a college sophomore when I got pregnant. Her childhood was over before I figured out who I was and what I had to offer her. She was born at the end of the baby boomer generation—stuck between two generations without seeming to belong to either.
We were the classic Peter Pan and Wendy with no idea what to do about it. I knew she didn’t like me very much—but what if I discovered she hated me? She had left home at seventeen for college and never returned. What if after all the years of living apart—of chasing separate dreams and missed connections—this was our only chance and we blew it?
If we didn’t try we would never know. Still—maybe knowing wasn’t all it was cracked up to be!
She stalled. I fussed to her father about her indecision when secretly I was doing the same thing. It was her father who negotiated the truce, the guy who didn’t really want me to go—because it was southern Mexico and he would have no power to save me if something went wrong—this husband of mine called his daughter and told her I wouldn’t go without her.
Fate had decreed it was time.
 Miles from home, the novelty of adventure frees us. Tears turn to laughter as we struggle to find common ground, mother and daughter, offspring of my teen years when I had little to offer her except my love.
Lying on our beds that first night, lost in the weight of awkward silence, we begin to talk, first of inconsequentials, then of the disappointments we have each suffered at the other’s hand.  When exhaustion claims us my firefighter daughter demands that we make an evacuation plan. She places a flashlight and our shoes by the door while I scoff, not yet ready to relinquish the parent role to this adult daughter who has grown tenacious in the missing years.
When the first temblor rocks the hotel I accept the small earthquake as a sign that flexibility and respect might be a good thing.
Seven days later we are friends in a way we have never before managed, our hearts healed of the nagging fear that we have somehow missed our connection. Here’s what I write to celebrate our week.
                                                Thank you, Zihua’
The week was productive and inspirational. My daughter and I left our mark on the little town. I asked questions of every bartender and waiter, every vendor and taxi driver who would tolerate our Spanish. We rode a bus with broken windows to Petatlán and were taken in hand by a couple of eager seventeen-year-olds. We caught the stench of freshly-butchered pigs, ate cow head enchiladas, and brushed off flies and proposals of marriage with equal adroitness.
We adored Lenore and Veronica and Elsa and her husband. We dined with an opera singer from Mexico City and advised her in her marital distress over a bottle of wine at midnight. We rose at dawn and ate cerviche at the fish market, and enticed Jose the cantina owner into telling us his story of lost virginity at the hands of a Greek goddess who was nineteen to his seventeen.
Sweet days. We made friends with the geckos on our wall and nodding acquaintance with the iguana in our tree. We toted home fresh cocos and pinas and laced the shells with rum. We tossed Else's bougainvillea into the sea at midnight and made a wish to return. We bought Latina sandals that made our legs look long and hootchie- mama dresses that made us feel great.
We danced to a Bolivian CD in the dark and watched the houses on the hill
swell with the afternoon light. We bought morning coffee for the Indian woman who carries flan on her head, and turned down an offer of product from the local drug dealer. We taxied to Ixtapa and ferried to Las Gatas and attended Easter Mass at the church of the Virgin of Guadalupe. (And knelt in reverence at the cathedral at Petatlan) and saved our sunburn for the last day.
Oh yes, I finished twenty-five pages of most excellent prose for a total of seventy-five pages on my novel. If we missed anything we'll be glad to retrace our
steps. We have found paradise.
When we returned, my husband wanted to know why I looked so relaxed. I told him it was the humidity.
           In a lifetime a mother should be so lucky. We were both profoundly touched by our experiences. The words started flowing, woman to woman, and they’ve never stopped. Thank you, Universe, for your part in my journey.
What's your story? Any life-changing adventures with your children or grandchildren? Share them with us and please write them down for yourself. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

When Your Body Says “No:” The Stress/Disease Connection

I came across this amazing link and I want to shout it from the rooftops. 

Vancouver-based Dr. Gabor Mate argues that too many doctors ignore the research. They’ve apparently forgotten the once commonplace assumption that emotions are deeply implicated in human well-being.

Well, HELLO! A couple of friends and I were discussing this very thing (we’re grandmas, but never too old to diss our upbringing!) 

Tina mentioned that her mother was an “I love you, BUT…” type. My friend grew up feeling she’d never quite “made the grade” with her mother. In her words, by adulthood this feeling had oozed out to include everyone in the whole world. She calls herself a Pleaser. Not surprisingly, she’s plagued with health problems. I love her the way she is, but I can see that she says “yes” way too often.

Our other friend, Mary, said her mother is a narcissist who manages to deflect every triumph back to herself. If Mary brought home a good report card, she was told she took after her mama who always got straight A’s. Mary’s fought a weight problem her entire life. Her mother, of course, is a perfect size 6. Her horror is that she will spend her golden years caring for her mother's dramatic, malingering passing. We coined an unflattering nickname for her mother that makes Mary laugh. After all, what are friends for?

My mom is a raver--in the good sense. She raves over us. Her favorite phrases involve, “Isn’t that beautiful!” or “You made this all by yourself?” Three generations of her progeny tease her about her attribution skills as we glow in the light of her appreciation. 

I took the joy of accomplishment for granted until I began noticing that not everyone had it so good. Dr. Mate says her joy helped me develop a sunny disposition that supports a healthy immune system. Were it this simple!

I inherited her attribution skills and for that I’m grateful. But my awful twin makes it easy to interject sarcasm and deflect attention to myself. My attribution skills come at a cost. I’ve had to learn to sit and really listen. To take a backseat. (See, not easy. Count the I’s and me’s in this paragraph and you’ll see.)

So what is this rant really about? To take it back to the top, I’m an expressive who apparently has been tending my immune system my entire life. If I live to be 90, I’ll have to thank my mom, my blog and everyone who has had to listen to me verbalize my feelings.

How about you? Any insights into your emotional/physical connection?
Don’t forget to check out Dr. Mate’s interview.