Monthly Archives: April 2016

Z is for Zen Attitude

Zmeditation

Zen quote one

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m a bit of a magazine junkie. While living in Europe, I’d snap up French magazines to practice and expand my French vocabulary. “Zen” is a word used often in French mags, and it doesn’t refer to Zen Buddhism, but rather to a relaxed state of mind, to simplicity in cooking, decorating, and one’s daily routine, to shedding stress. In women’s magazines such as Avantages, Marie-Claire, Elle, and even Cosmopolitan française, you’ll find articles about zen vacations, zen decorating, zen workouts, zen weekends, zen attitude, zen recipes, and even zen back-to-school (la rentrée).

I try to maintain a zen attitude (in the French sense) in moments of stress, but I’m not yet very good at it. Malcolm Gladwell says I need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a master—I still have about 9,990 hours to go. The little Buddha charm I wear around my neck helps. When I’m feeling impatient or bored, especially in conversation, I finger my little Buddha (that sounds nasty, but you know what I mean) and breathe deeply. Otherwise, my little Buddha rests in my cleavage, over my heart, reminding me to chill. I hope he enjoys it down there.

I face many obstacles on my path to a zen attitude. I’m an impatient multi-tasker, not given to deep reflection (unless I’m writing about it), oblivious to undercurrents. My totem animal is the dragonfly, zipping here and there, never still for long. But “zoom” is antithetical to “zen.” I have a long way to go on the road to inner stillness and peace. Perhaps a course in meditation is in order.

On the plus side, I do like to keep my physical environment uncluttered and simple. I’m a great weeder and discarder of the superfluous—unless we’re talking about books. There’s no such thing as too many books.

Dear bloggers, as we leave the month of April behind, and with it our A-Z challenge, I thank you for stopping by, and for sharing your personal thoughts and experiences with us all. I wish you inspiration, easy-flowing words, and a “zen” summer.

“The personal life deeply lived always expands into truths beyond itself.”

– Anais Nin

Y is for Yawp

Y

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me—he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable;
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

                              From “Song of Myself,” Verse 52, by Walt Whitman

We all want to make our mark somehow, to scrawl on the wall of life, “I was here.” We have this primal urge to make our presence known, and I find it fascinating to see all the ways people find to yawp.

Some yawp often, and publicly, like the folks who don outrageous, flashy outfits and strut down the street like exotic birds. I admire their flair and, sometimes, their fashion sense. I suppose loud laughers are yawping, and loud talkers too, though I sometimes wish they’d find a less grating way to yawp.

Artists of all kinds are yawpers, though each cry may take years of careful preparation. A visual artist’s yawp emerges from her body and remains, ringing out loud and clear, perhaps long after she’s gone. Ditto writers, composers, architects. Performing artists can reach many at one yawp. Can you recall the best concert or play you’ve ever attended? I’ll bet that energy and inspiration still vibrates in your bones.

And what about those who prefer a more subdued wardrobe and aren’t artistically inclined? How do they yawp? I read an article recently that used the word “yawp” to describe the rush of energy and achievement after vigorous exercise. Excellent wordsmithing there—my Zumba class is full of soft-spoken older women who, in that safe setting, clap their hands and shake their hips and yawp.

It’s sad, I think, when someone doesn’t find her own way to yawp. Working in a cubicle farm and shopping at the mall doesn’t give one much of a forum for that primal cry: “I’m here!” Kids know how to yawp, though. I scribbled notes for this post while subbing for a middle-school performing arts teacher. Ay ay ay, such yawping! With the slightest encouragement, kids this age will tell you just what’s unique about them. In fact, they’re dying to be asked. I wonder what happens between middle school and high school to dampen down that yawp.

What’s the connection between “yawp” and my focus on retirement (besides being a cool word that starts with Y)? The urge to yawp doesn’t go away with age; we still need to proclaim our presence, cry out with our unique songs.

As we come to the end of the A-Z blog challenge, it occurs to me that “yawp” is a good description of what we’re doing here—each of us throwing our thoughts and whims out into the ether, hoping some like-minded soul will hear and answer, like hawks calling as they soar. Which leads me to another bit of Whitman’s wisdom. Instead of a hawk, he imagines the brave soul seeking connection as a spider, throwing her filaments of web into the unknown, in full faith that it will catch somewhere.

A Noiseless Patient Spider
BY WALT WHITMAN

A noiseless patient spider, 
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated, 
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding, 
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself, 
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them. 

And you O my soul where you stand, 
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space, 
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them, 
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, 
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

X is for Xanadu

Xmagic garden

Kubla Khan

By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment. 

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery….
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem is, at least in part, an attempt to relate a dream he had while under the influence of laudanum, an opioid medicine he took for an illness—or so he says. He’d fallen asleep while reading about the travels of Marco Polo, who had visited the palace grounds of Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, in Mongolia. Xanadu, a European attempt to pronounce Shang-tu, has come to represent “an idyllic, exotic, or luxurious place” (Merriam-Webster online dictionary).

Xanadu—I do not picture a land where Olivia Newton-John roller skates, but rather something more like Marco Polo’s description of the Mongolian palace and grounds. Apparently, Mr. K.K. had a summer palace made of lacquered bamboo that could be assembled wherever he chose on the palace grounds; he resided there in the summer to keep cool. Cool. My personal Xanadu would definitely have a breezy, movable summer palace, and plenty of breezy summer weather in which to enjoy the magical gardens. I’ll also keep the river that bursts forth in a fountain and disappears into mysterious caves. But I’m a modern woman, and—as imaginary empress—require other comforts in my pleasure dome.

Let’s see–I’ll need

  • Some extra fountains: coffee hot springs, two wine fountains (one red, one white), and a fountain of lemon-flavored sparkling water for rehydrating.
  • The royal snack tent, with a colorful flags to fly when the next tasty treat is ready for my royal enjoyment.
  • Royal musicians, to entertain me as I stroll, doze, or dine.
  • A royal masseur, to work out any royal kinks. The empress isn’t as young as she once was, you know.
  • A royal Jacuzzi, set up under a weeping willow tree, to screen my royal pulchritude from any passing visitors.
  • And don’t forget the royal library-mobile, to give me access to an ever-changing selection of books at every corner of my palace grounds. I’ll need a little bell to summon the book wagon whenever I get bored.
  • A supply of fascinating, varied courtiers to keep me company, and then vamoose when I grow weary of company.
  • Various tutors to refine my royal magnificence. I’ll need dance tutor, an art tutor, a lute instructor, a martial arts sensei, a riding master, and so on. Lessons amuse me.

What about you? As long as we’re constructing pleasure domes, what will you include in yours?

 

W is for Why Not?

Wquestion mark

W is for Why Not?

Ah, the Why Not. It was a grubby club where my army friends and I used to dance in Hinesville, Georgia, just outside of Fort Stewart. A cinderblock hulk with cement floors, it was the hottest non-country & western dance club in town, and we loved it. Every Friday night we’d shed our uniforms, get dressed up, parade in like the fine young things we knew we were, and dance until we literally couldn’t dance any more—until our muscles would no longer respond to our brain’s commands. All that dancing burned off the alcohol we drank like brandy in a flambéed dessert—sizzle, hiss, pouf! Although many came to the Why Not looking for a mate, my friends and I went in a big group, and that’s how we danced, just a blob of happy, bobbing humanity. Good times.

And why not? We were young, carefree, strong, and could bounce back from a night of carousing with minimal pain. Why not spend our money dancing and drinking and whooping it up? Come to think of it, why not do that now?

OK, I’m a lot older now. I was twenty-one when I danced at the Why Not. My alcohol consumption was limited by my skinny wallet, and also by my skinny body—too many drinks made me too dizzy to dance. Today both my wallet and body are thicker, but I don’t burn off the booze like used to. More than a few drinks and I go to sleep. And my creaky knees don’t like dancing as much as they used to. And my husband doesn’t dance so well on his new knee. Oh dear.

Well, if I can’t dance the night away, why not…

  • Sing the night away. I sing better than I used to, and I’m learning to play the ukulele! It’s great fun to get together with guitar-playing friends and sing for hours.
  • Clap the night away. There are so many venues in Tacoma where we can hear excellent live music of all sorts, and even dance a bit. Tonight we’re going out to hear some excellent jazz.
  • Play the night away. Cards Against Humanity, Catch Phrase, Blitz (a card game)—it’s so much fun to get really silly and profane around a table with friends. I doubt any group of youngsters gets sillier than we do.
  • Throw the night away. Hubs has installed a dart board out back in his Man Cave (a big shed), and my aim is getting better and better. Soon we’ll be ready for a dart league.
  • Read the night away. Now that I’m retired, I’m burning through books like a fire in the library. I love staying up late to finish a book, knowing that I don’t have to get up early in the morning.
  • Well, yes. There is that. It doesn’t take all night, but it’s still fun.

What about you? Do you still dance the night away? If not, what fun activities have taken the place of those wild nights on the dance floor?

V is for Vacation

V

View from our hotel room, Cannon Beach, OR

View from our hotel room, Cannon Beach, Oregon

OK—I’ll admit that I have a lot of nerve writing about this topic, since I’m retired and can usually structure my time to suit my moods. But when you have a crew of guys hammering, sanding, and otherwise blasting away at your house with power tools for weeks at a time—well, a person needs a little break from the chaos. So bear with me while I tell you about a charming place that you might want to visit: Cannon Beach, Oregon.

My charming sister-in-law turned seventy right after Christmas, and we’ve been looking ever since for a place where we could celebrate by renting a house for a long weekend of relaxing, playing guitars (or ukulele, in my case) and enjoying some sunshine—the idea was to take a break from Tacoma’s dreary winter. Well, you know how difficult it can be to schedule something like this, not to mention the expense of flying and renting a house, so we settled on a beach-side hotel on the northern Oregon coast. The Surfsand Resort in Cannon Beach is lovely, with fireplaces in the rooms, big bathtubs, and views of Haystack Rock. They even made us a private campfire on the beach!

Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach

Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach

The weather wasn’t warm, but we did have some sun between drizzles, and the town of Cannon Beach is so full of interesting shops, art galleries, restaurants and pubs that we were able to enjoy the rainy times. And there’s a handy little grocery/deli on the main street so you can stock up on refreshments.

A lovely little bookshop at Cannon Beach

A lovely little bookshop at Cannon Beach

A funky art gallery, one of many at Cannon Beach

A funky art gallery, one of many at Cannon Beach

Haystack Rock is, of course, the center of attention on the beach, even when the weather is blustery. The result of an ancient lava flow that exploded upward when it reached the sea, Haystack rock soars 235 feet above sea level and is surrounded by smaller rock towers called “needles.” Naturalists on site at low tide helped us spot nesting puffins, soaring bald eagles, circling common murres (which look rather like flying penguins), and anemones in the tide pools. And there’s something at once soothing and invigorating about walking on the beach, even when the weather is stormy.

Tide pools at the base of Haystack Rock

Tide pools at the base of Haystack Rock

"Needles" beside Haystack Rock

“Needles” beside Haystack Rock

In the evenings, we gathered in M and ME’s room, which had enough space to accommodate seven people playing guitars and drinking wine. Our snack buffet caught the eye of a visitor, whom we named Craig. After he watched us for twenty minutes, hopefully cocking his head this way and that, R finally broke down and fed him a cracker, and he became our lifelong friend.

Craig says hello

Craig says hello

Good times, good friends, good music, good wine—a really great vacation. Wishing you the same.

Sunset at Cannon Beach

 

U is for Unpublished

UBooks

These days, when people ask what I do, I tell them I’m a writer. Declaring our intentions aloud and publicly has power. And I do spend a large portion of each day writing: editing my women’s fiction novel, writing for this blog, working on the first draft of my next (third) novel, a cozy mystery. I also spend several hours each month on editing and critiquing for other writers, as well as studying the craft of writing in books, on websites, or by taking writing classes. I don’t just sit around thinking writing thoughts, I’m BICFOKTAM for hours every day. (For you non-writers, that’s Butt in chair, fingers on keyboard, typing away madly.)

“What have you published?” they ask.

Well—er—that is—um…

Actually, nothing. Aside from this blog, I’ve published nothing—yet. But I’m working on it.

My goal is traditional publication, so in addition to producing the best stories I can, I must also craft the perfect query letter, synopsis (a one-page and a longer one), logline (the essence of my story in one sentence), an elevator speech for in-person pitches to literary agents…There’s a lot involved in finding a literary agent to represent my work, which is my best shot at traditional publication. There are small publishing houses that will accept un-agented manuscripts, but I haven’t yet explored that possibility.

I’ve now reached my twenty-fifth “No, thanks” from literary agents for my first and second novels, combined, plus one for a creepy little short story I sent off to Ellery Queen magazine.

But am I bothered? Dejected? Ready to give up? Certainly not. I hear from fellow writers that many get fifty, seventy, or sometimes over a hundred “No, thank you’s” before they finally get that golden “yes” that leads to publication.

And then they start all over again.

“Why don’t you just self-publish?” you ask. I may eventually do that. My first novel is—well, it’s a first novel. I don’t really expect it to hit the New York Times’ Bestseller List, but it has good bones, and I think that certain readers—namely, teachers and former teachers—would enjoy reading it. The dead body discovered in chapter one is the principal’s, and what teacher hasn’t dreamt of that scenario? (Sorry, good principals.) I need to tighten up the beginning, ratchet up the suspense in the first third of the story. If after another fifty or so queries I get no bites, I’ll probably self-publish that one.

No doubt, there are some wonderful works of self-published fiction out there. I haven’t read one yet, but indie fiction is a growing market. I have purchased several non-fiction e-books, and only a few were total crap. But there is still a stigma attached to self-publishing, alas, because far too many writers don’t spend enough time getting critical feedback before they press the “publish” button on Amazon (or what have you).

So for now, I remain an unpublished writer, ever hopeful that the next revision of chapter one, the next polishing of my query letter, will catch the eye of that agent who’s out there waiting to find Lola, my protagonist, and champion her adventures to publishers great and small. Wish me luck—and Lola too.

 

T is for Time

Tick, tick, tick...

Tick, tick, tick…

T

Time is the greatest gift of retirement: sweet, uncommitted, all-for-me time. Time is what I most longed for during my working years, when I left the house at seven-fifteen and rolled back home at five or six—or later, during play rehearsals or homecoming week or prom season. Now, I know that teachers don’t have the corner on exhaustion. I can only imagine how tired a cop must be at the end of her shift, or an emergency room nurse, or a store manager who stands all day. We working stiffs are bone-deep weary when we come home.

Well, we were—er, I was. I was tired in body and mind and heart, capable of only the occasional burst of words at my computer. After work and family obligations, there was almost no time for me. But now that I’m retired, I have oodles of time me-time, time to write.

But isn’t it funny how easily we can fritter away our precious time? You know how it goes: you sit down at your computer to do some work, something you really want to do. But let’s check social media first—uh oh. A film clip of cute goats frolicking leads to an article about raising goats, which leads to a recipe for goat cheese and leek tart, which leads to an article about why you should never eat cheese, which makes you hungry, so you go get a snack and—whoops! Have I really been sitting at my computer for two hours? What a waste of time.

Then again, is retirement perhaps our opportunity to finally waste some time? Is it good for the soul to just noodle along, following your interests? It would be interesting to designate one day per month as Whim Day, when I do whatever I feel like with no planning and no judgment. I wonder, if I kept a journal of what I did on such days, would any interesting patterns emerge? Probably not—I’d probably find myself back with the frolicking goats.

The bittersweet aspect of all this free time in retirement is the knowledge that my time is growing ever shorter. It’s not that I’m fixated on death, because that would be a pointless waste of time, but I am aware that I have fewer years before me than I have behind me, so the time to reach my goals is NOW. This knowledge is very motivating—if I could just get past those damn cute goats.

S is for Slow Down

Sclock

…you move too fast. You’ve got to make the morning last. Just kicking down the cobblestones, looking for love and feelin’ groovy.    — Paul Simon, 59th Street Bridge Song

“Groovy, schoovy,” my inner drill sergeant growls. “Time to march. Yo’ left, yo’ left, yo’ left, right, left…”

I’m addicted to the feeling of accomplishment. Getting things done is my drug, and I need my daily fix. I love crossing items off my to-do list. I love it so much that I sometimes cheat and add items after I’ve accomplished them, just to have the satisfaction of crossing them off.

Nothing fuels my habit as much as coffee—ah, sweet coffee. (Actually, I don’t take it sweet. Just milk, please.) As soon as I feel those tendrils of caffeine-fueled focus curling through my veins, the game is afoot. First, I’m gonna do this, and then I’ll need twenty minutes to finish that, and then… Woe unto the loved one who gets in my way when I’m in rocket-ass mode.

During my teaching career, a day’s success hinged on rabid multi-tasking and squeezing productivity from every little crumb of time. In three minutes, I could dash to the restroom and Xerox another five copies of a quiz. Zoom!

But now, I’m retired, and I can take my time, slow down, enjoy the process, rather than just spit out results all day. The trouble is, I don’t really know how. It’s going on two years now, and I’m still jonesing for accomplishment. My fingers till itch to cross items of that to-do list. I want to move fast, think fast, get stuff done right now.

Is there a support group for speed junkies like me? The only time I feel really comfortable going slow is when I’m reading—and even then I’m constantly checking to see how close I am to the end of the article or chapter. Maybe if I set up a chart and give myself a gold star for every half-hour I spend moving slowly… Perhaps I can make slowing down an item on my to-do list?

 

R is for Real Food

Rfruits and veggies

“Just keepin’ it real” is a popular phrase these days. Authenticity is a quality I admire greatly, especially in our culture, which promotes phoniness at every turn. One of the most important arenas for keeping it real is on our plates.

So many health problems are due to eating fake food. Of course, processed foods are tasty (if overly-salted and overly-sweetened foods are what you’re used to), cheap and easy. Our federal government provides generous subsidies to growers of corn, and soy, making high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soy oil available to food manufacturers at rock-bottom prices. Take a stroll through the center aisles of your supermarket, where the bulk of the processed foods are found, and just try to find a processed item that doesn’t contain one of these. And even if they don’t use HFC, food manufacturers put added sugar into the most amazing places: salad dressing, sauces, all sorts of instant dinners and side dishes—dehydrated or frozen—bread, salty crackers, chips…it boggles the mind.

And we’ve all read how food manufacturers manipulate the terrible trio of fat, salt and sugar to make processed foods addicting. Judging by the crap I see in the supermarket carts of my fellow shoppers, especially the folks who are obviously in poor health, I don’t think addiction is too strong a word for processed foods’ hold on us. And it’s not just our weight that suffers when we eat too much of this junk; consumption of processed foods has been linked to cancers, gout, heart disease, diabetes, auto-immune diseases, allergies, and even Alzheimer’s disease. That shit will literally kill you.

As you can tell, real food and the dangers of fake food is a subject that interests me greatly. I’m a big fan of Michael Pollan’s books, and try to live his advice: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Another phrase of his I love is “edible food-like substances,” which describes most of what you’ll find in the center of the supermarket.  A good film documentary can be a powerful educational tool. When I was teaching persuasive and informative writing to my high school students, I’d show them films like Food Inc. and Fast Food Nation, along with TED talks on the topic of unhealthy diet. The discussions that followed were fascinating, and I’m glad to have given my students some food for thought. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Let me also insert a plug for one of my favorite blogs: Snack Girl! Part home cook, part investigative journalist, and an excellent food writer, she provides recipes for healthy alternatives to nasty, phony “treats.”

Hubs and I have been without a kitchen for three weeks now, but we’ve managed to prepare real food most of those days using a borrowed electric skillet (Thanks, Kim!), a slow-cooker, a microwave and our backyard grill. Last night I made a posole-ish stew using some leftover grilled pork tenderloin. Of course, I could’ve done much better if I’d had a stove, but it was still pretty tasty.

Into the slow cooker went:

  • Two cups of chicken broth
  • A can of diced tomatoes
  • A can of mild green chiles, chopped
  • A can of yellow hominy (Yes, canned food is processed, but not necessarily fake. I check the labels and choose products without added sugar, salt, and the fewest possible lab-made chemicals)
  • Diced cooked pork tenderloin
  • Cumin
  • Oregano
  • Chili powder

When it was done, we topped each bowl with radishes, green onions, cilantro and a bit of cheese. Real food, very tasty–and another entry in The Leftover Project.

poso

Happy cooking!

 

Q is for Quatsch

Qquatsch 1

Some words are simply better in other languages. Some of my favorite German words include Stau (traffic jam), funkelnagelneu (brand-new), pinkeln (to pee), and my all-time favorite: Quatsch! You need the exclamation mark, trust me.

Interesting note: Microsoft Word’s spell-checker is lighting up every German word in this post except Quatsch.

Pronounced Kvahtsh, Quatsch means nonsense, foolishness, b.s. It’s not a rude word, just direct. Quatschen means to talk/do nonsense, to fool around. Lass den Quatsch = Cut the crap/Stop fooling around. And the best of all: Quatsch mit Sosse=B.S. with sauce = absolute rubbish!

Ulli! Cut the crap!

Ulli! Cut the crap!

Quatsch is the perfect response to the nonsense we’re subjected to every day. Health claims for a highly-processed snack food? Ach, Quatsch! The driver in front of me doesn’t go when the light turns green because she’s checking her phone? Hör auf zu quatschen! (Quit d#@*ing around!). I should care what the Kardashians are doing? Doppel-Quatsch! I don’t know if a German person would actually say that, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?

All roads lead to Rome. Bullsh**...All roads lead to the refrigerator.

All roads lead to Rome. Bullsh**…All roads lead to the refrigerator.

Wouldn’t it be great if, during the run-up to the Presidential election, the candidates would stop slinging Quatsch and tell the truth?  Here’s wishing you a Quatschfrei day—unless you really feel like a little quatschen.