22 October 2015

Lighting the Way Forward

I've been thinking about the Deborah Koons Garcia film Symphony of the Soil, which I saw Monday night at the opening night of the 2015 Flatirons Film Food Fest. I have seen her first film, The Future of Food, a couple of times. It centered on the horrifying dangers of Genetically Modified Organisms in big agriculture. In Garcia's 2012 film, I appreciated the visuals on the topic, but I walked out of the film at the end feeling like I'd just attended a couple of back-to-back college lectures. I appreciated Symphony of the Soil's lesson on the fundamentals of how soil is formed (and dissipated), the difference between soil and dirt, and how plants and soil and bacteria all work together.

The fermentation folks attending and signing books did connect the bacteria in the soil, the bacteria on and in our foods and plants, and the bacteria in our guts and bodies. But I truly feel for those fermentation gurus like Sandor Katz and who are preaching the gospel people used to know but have more recently forsaken. I see the fomenters of fermentation reaching to encompass crowds of recent converts trying to take back their personal microbiomes, and crowds of people still pumping Purex and antibacterial soaps out of plastic bottles, wrinkling their noses, and saying "ew, bacteria." When we first recognized the world of bacteria, we presumed them hostile, just like in one of the original Star Trek episodes. Bacteria, however, turn out to be more like animals. Their risks and benefits to us are significantly more nuanced than early researchers dreamed and the scientific methods available to them at the time could help them understand. 

In my spec Star Trek episode based on this, the Enterprise lands on a planet where civilization is in apparent collapse, most of its people left impoverished on the twin shoals of devastated health and astronomical medical bills. A few people are thriving, however, and they help to reveal the solution to the folks on the Enterprise. That solution is literally right under everyone's noses: The soil and the products of the soil -- and the twist at the end is when they stop replenishing the soil, they start dying and the geniuses on the Enterprise have to remind them of the powers of their own most precious resource: the earth under their feet.

So when I think of what is being pumped into the ground and what leaches into the soil and groundwater when energy companies frack the earth, I am horrified at my own car use. I am horrified at all I do to contribute to that unwavering demand that propels fracking. Films like Symphony of the Soil awaken me to my deepest beliefs and innermost feelings: that each of those tiny little bacteria on those tiny little fibers on all those root systems of our food and foliage underground is just as precious if not more so than the life of each of us humans. Some of us humans are particularly destructive. I worry about the folks who are trying to extract as much value they can from the earth before they die or the earth runs out of resources. It is planetary torture to pump harsh chemicals into the ground the way we do every day. To clearcut rainforests for cattle grazing. And hardly anyone is talking about the dwarfing effects of the billions of cows we grow for food on the planet and its people and our animal population (yes, I saw Cowspiracy on Netflix recently). 

About 10 years ago I interviewed Jim Butterworth about his documentary Seoul Train, which he filmed and produced with a friend, Lisa Sneeth, a nurse working overseas. They had become aware of the plight of the Northern Korean people and wanted to do something that made a difference. They thought about what medium they wanted to work in. A book sounded reasonable, but they realized they wanted to reach a lot of people, quickly, and move them to action if possible. So they chose film to tell the story, and hired an accomplished director and editor, Aaron Lubarsky. The filmmakers took their cameras to North Korea and documented an underground railroad out of North Korea and into South Korea that helped people reunite with families who had sometimes been apart for decades. 

It's true: Film is often the medium that moves me the most. And I am continually grateful to the directors and producers who illuminate my world, even under the ground beneath me. My friend Patti Bonnet (who works with Louie Psihoyos, director of The Cove and the new film Chasing Extinction), Jim Butterworth, Deborah Koons Garcia, Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn (of Cowspiracy) help me see where I need to shed the light I want to see in the world. These  films are guiding lights, my films lumières, rather than films noirs.

The People in My Neighborhood

I was proud of the many things I did that made me feel independent and self-sufficient. I would visit our friends Jay and Vivian in South Boulder with my family, and anytime we were near their house, I would say, sometimes out loud: “If you blindfolded me, drove me around, and dropped me off anywhere in Boulder, I would be able to find my way home.”
This wasn't true of everyone around me, but my father and I always shared an internal compass that gave us a good sense of direction just about anywhere we found ourselves.
It helped to grow up in a place where the Rocky Mountains are directly to the west. Towering slabs of rock looming over the city? Yep, that's west. The mountain range, which we call the Front Range, in homage I suppose to the pioneers who first met the eastern slope of the Rockies on their westward trek. The Rockies run roughly north to south, with the plains flattening all the way out into the midwestern states. Keep the mountains to your left and you're heading north. With the mountains to your back, you are headed east. Mornings, the sun spills into our living room from the east, and in its evening sink into the west casts its mountain-shaped shadow over us earlier than it does out on the prairie.
By the time I was in my teens, I could walk all over town and feel I knew someone just about everywhere. I didn't spend a lot of time in South Boulder, but in Central and North Boulder, I was always passing houses where my classmates lived, where a teacher lived, where my mother had delivered a baby, where we had friends, where a client at my father's shop lived, or where I'd delivered newspapers.
Some of the friends I remember visiting:
My mother's friend Diane, when she lived in an apartment on Grandview Avenue, at the crest of University Hill, between the University of Colorado campus and the Boulder High School campus. I remember persuading her to buy Count Chocula cereal for the event.
My neighbor friend David, who lived about two blocks away and seemed a little befuddled at being dropped in on by an eight-year-old kid. He was a CU grad student maybe, a little older than the people he roomed with. A black widow bite caused David to go deaf in one ear. That was a shock and changed everything for him. We lost touch after that and later he moved away.
And when I'd come to that Boulder neighborhood and say “You could drop me anywhere and I would know how to get home” was I really wanted to be lost near Jay and Viv's house and have a reason to drop in on them.

It strikes me that I did a lifetime of persuading in my first 13 years. 
What did I look for when I met people and right away tried to gain purchase with them? Only many years later I recognized that's how my father worked. Pour on the charm, and then try to extract proof of their commitment to your shared relationship. It was a very presumptuous model for a friendship and it took me a long time to excise phrases like “You have to tell me how it was!” (no, you don't -– that's up to you) from my repertoire.
Did I pin my huge hopes on these friends wanting rescue? Or distraction from my disasterland full of minefields? I wonder how many calls or visits my parents fielded from people whom I started dropping in on to get me to lighten up. Did that happen? Or am I remembering a couple of mortifying occasions that I've blown up into a character flaw in my narrative?

15 October 2015

I Come By It Honestly

This phrase, I come by it honestly, keeps insinuating itself into my mind. (After watching a PBS show about the brain last night, I’m wondering, “What the heck do I mean by that?” Really, I blithely say the phrase comes into my head -- but how does a phrase or a song or a notion heard or read or seen corkscrew itself into a brain? Doesn’t it take someone operating the proverbial corkscrew, a being, me, to think “I come by it honestly” over and over? Or is there no volition but rather a physical phenomenon, a pattern of neurons refiring in sequence to echo something that resonated with my thinking? What in the physical world is an earworm?

As for its meaning, it’s largely a letting of myself off a certain hook: I have inherited from my parents but have been towing (not toeing) a family line until now, a presumption that we’re all these almost Calvinistically virtuous, respectable, and upright people, which turns out to be a façade covering a whole other spectrum of behaviors -- bizarre, addictive, aggressive, abusive -- in our collective history. My broken-off relationship with my father is freeing me to speak out too.

The blog post I wrote about my dog Pig a few years ago is about this. He disappeared some of our animals; some of them may have disappeared to save themselves from him. As low critters on the totem pole, they were most likely to get crushed by my father's brutality.

Today’s Huffpost Politics story about violence against animals as an indicator crime — one that points to other kinds of aggression and violence against human animals, too — gives me great hope and furthers my feeling of freedom. Every time we share this information, we are freer to stand up to bullies. Even bullies with weapons.

More power to us. Clearly, we’re going to need it.

25 September 2015

An Aesthetic

What would my design philosophy look like?

I wish we had tools and resources that invited us to play with them, to joyfully discover new possibilities with them. So I very much favor form and function over strict utilitarianism, strict minimalism, or strict anything for that matter.

In my aesthetic universe, beauty is a reward for everyone who encounters it and harmonizes with its expression. Of course we don't all agree about what is beautiful. If we did agree, what would we deem "art," and what would we not categorize as art? Surely not only works that are aesthetically pleasing, and surely not exclusively works that are disturbing or perturbing, shocking or simply unexpected.

I like things that tell you how to use them, or that fulfill a need I hadn't thought of but wished I had. When Apple makes iTunes unfathomable to someone who hasn't been steeped in Apple's design and user experience world for decades, I feel a sort of double betrayal. I feel the "You said this was going to be easy" whine pushing me downslope as if I was trying to climb up scree so loose I wound up churning my legs and landing below where I'd started. Apple products all looks so clean and so good but sometimes you can't find what you need on those smooth, blank surfaces.

Color makes my world go around (or 'round, more musically speaking). I can think of no reason I would not wear or use fabrics and paints in bold, vibrant colors. Color adds something unique to the atmosphere. Perhaps you could get some of the same benefits from a constant parade of fresh flowers arranged everywhere. I remember feeling shock at the beauty of the tall, dramatic, gladiola-centric bouquets artfully arranged throughout my grandfather's formal dining room and living room because I knew they seldom used those spaces and most people hardly saw them. Did they receive the same kind of arrangements through the winter? I'm sure their florist provided them with seasonally appropriate bouquets, but how many people enjoyed their bright colors? So I share the wealth and try to dress colorfully, to cheer up me and everyone else around me.

04 September 2015

The Body Remembers, But Does the Self Know What to Do Next?

 “In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”
― Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

For a couple of months, it has felt to me like there is something wedged somewhere in the vicinity of my collarbone and jaw. I just now checked in with that feeling and said “Aha! That’s your throat!”

Hm. I feel I have something stuck in my throat.

“Duh,” says the university-trained literary critic. (Smarty-pants. She can’t help herself.)

Today’s writing prompts were a Facebook post with the above quote from Bessel A. van der Kolk about how awareness of what’s going on in the body is a tool for healing trauma in our pasts, and a Dear Sugar radio episode featuring a query from a wounded mother of a young child.

So I check in with my body.

Three things call to me right now. OK, four. I’ll start at the top with a headache. I woke up with an achy head that is just now beginning to feel a little less like a sack of concrete I am carrying on top of my forehead. Oh, who am I kidding? Not me, apparently, as I notice that the pain has settled into my left sinus.

Then there’s this hinky jaw-to-clavicle thing. It’s making me feel halting and restricted.

My right palm (on my space-bar hand) complains, deep in the pad at the junction of my thumb and its hand.

And I have a knee injury (official diagnosis: IT band syndrome) I am just starting to rehabilitate.

So not only do I feel a bit unsteady on my pins, but I’m also experiencing pain in the areas associated with talking and writing and thinking.

That assessment makes me check, and feel again: Where am I not feeling pain?

My heart feels good, warm, safe, and surrounded by loving beings, including me (a slightly fearful being of late but deeply loving, and lovable). My bum feels fine, thank you very much. My feet feel solid on the floor. My strong thighs feel like camshafts, ready and able to execute my brain engine's directives. My ankles are happy and my back feels neutral and relaxed. My waist curves in at one of my body’s crucial boundaries, a spot I feel protective of and pleased with all at once.

At the same time the literary critic goes to town on deconstructing my physical self, I also remind my emotional, Id-ish self not to draw too many big conclusions from small details. Not to make grandiose pronouncements given my limited temporal and psychic understanding. (I come by that honestly, my compassionate self says. There, there.)

Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond's discussion of the unmothered mother's letter and conversation with her Portland writer friend Renee was another great reminder that so many of us have experienced terrible interruptions in our care and betrayals of our innocence. When I talk to my teenager these days, I sometimes say, "Don't do something you'll regret, especially if it's something you can't undo." I feel some things were done to me that can't be undone, but somehow being able to say this is again freeing and releasing. Because I said it, again, and will you look at that! The Universe didn't throw any lightning bolts at me, nor turn me into a pillar of salt.

But now what do I do with it all? “What’s next?” as van der Kolk asks in his book.

Do I go back to bed and try to sleep off the headache?

Do I push through the headache into the list of chores for the day (make another coffee, eat, cook, gather gear for the weekend, and clean)?

Do I go to my dance class in an hour and try not jumping and traveling — just exercising my upper body?

My first instinct is to write, so here I am.

But (true confession) between when I started this piece and now, I had a cleaning impulse, so I hung and reorganized a few things in my closet. I’m starting to think I don’t need as many things as I used to think I needed, which is a relief and a burden, the latter because the process of getting rid of things is an effort. It is many efforts over time.

In the midst of the closet and the writing creeps in the fear of “not doing enough about the future.”

Then I pulled a hanger out of the handful I was relocating in my closet and saw that I had assembled a beautiful and complete outfit that I hardly ever wear.

Lots of people tell me that Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering has you ask yourself about each of your things, “Does this thing bring me joy when I see it?”

For me the answer is seldom simple.

Yes I feel joy because of the colors of the fabrics and the other materials, and because of the completeness and elegance of the outfit. I remember finding the dress while shopping on Berkeley's 4th Street at a clothing outlet in a happy moment of freedom and independence. When I feel something other than joy it is because of the way the items fit me (the slip isn’t all that comfortable, and the jacket is just a little too short for my torso).

But I learned something from this outfit. The fact that it was 20 years between when I bought the dress and found a slip for under it and a jacket for over it told me I should avoid buying anything I can't wear as is. Clothing that requires more clothing is seldom smart and results in garments that occupy space in my closet for years, unworn, while I say, "Hmm, I wish I didn't have to wear tights and a camisole under that."

Then I thought: What if I put together outfits and sold those? I guess that is what those glossy fashion magazine stylists do. I can understand why that is a coveted and rare job, but so many of us are good at combining what we have and assembling something more beautiful than the apparent sum of its individual elements. More than just Vogue employees are doing this every day.

I suppose this is what we do when we write, too. We make meaning out of a bunch of individual symbols (“signifiers,” we called them in lit-crit school). And it is what we do when we live. We take the animal shell we are given and fill it with ourselves, and then we use the whole animal-and-self being to love, play, learn, work, give, show -- all those things that make our lives and maybe even others' lives more meaningful or more loving or more delicious or more beautiful.

So it is now time to feed this body some food, drink more water, and make a coffee with coconut oil in it. I don’t want to do too much but I don’t want to do too little, either. I am going to hang a few things up, pack a few things, and cook a couple of delicious things for later. I will do my exercises and contemplate what healing looks like, and feels like.

“More to be revealed,” as my mother loves to say.

“More soon,” I always concur.

17 August 2015

Here She Comes

Any moment now I am hoping to hear news of a new niece, the new daughter of my brother and sister-in-law.

And I can't help feeling sad about saying that in this moment I am thinking of a missing limb in her family architecture. My and my brother's father is my about-to-be niece's grandfather. But of his four surviving children -- me, my sister, my half-brother, and half-sister -- not one of us wants him around us.

I tried for years as an adult to get to know my father when my husband and I moved back to our hometown. I wasn't willing to simply extend forgiveness to my father without first being asked for forgiveness. So I took steps toward rebuilding a relationship with him. I had dinner with him at his house and hosted him at mine. I went river rafting with him.

And after all of that benefit-of-the-doubt giving, and getting to know him again, I decided I still did not trust him with my well being. I found my line in the sand: I knew I never again wanted to be in a car with him at the wheel.

Once this became clear, I sat down with him on the banks of Boulder Creek one day and asked him to apologize for subjecting me and my mother and our whole family to extremes of exposure to danger and abuse and neglect.

If he apologized that day, it was purely perfunctory. My father never acknowledged half of what I asked about. He explained himself, and proffered disclaimers: "I don't remember that at all," he said about my claims that he had hit my mother and stepmother and slammed my mother's head against the kitchen door until she saw stars.

When my sister told me she was molested when she was little, I felt waves of terrible, complicated feelings. I felt sick and angry for her, for what had been taken from her. I had the terrible thought: "I should have been able to protect her" -- all the more terrible because I had already lost another sister to an accident that happened when I wasn't with her. (I was miles away at the time of the accident, but for many years felt things would have turned out differently if I had been there.) I felt worry: "Will my sister ever think of the time I rubbed up against her in the car that day when I was 11 and she was 4 as being molested?" For a long time, I felt a kind of survivor's guilt: "Thank goodness I wasn't molested when I was a kid."

But then I remember.

I remember how extremely limited my power was as a child, limited by the sounds of my mother's and stepmother's shrieks, my father's shrill verbal lashings, and his smashing of fists and slamming of heads against walls.

I remember my fear as I listened, frozen in agony about whether to try to do something or stay still and quiet in my room. Only later did it occur to me that everyone screaming must have known we children weren't asleep. By then my sister would have silently come into my room and we would have huddled under my blankets together in our fear cave and waited for the storm to end. I had visions of someone ending up dead but usually our father either melted into a puddle of self-pity at the end and passed out drunk in his recliner or he bolted in anger, slamming the door behind him and roaring off in his car to disappear for anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days.

I remember wondering why my mother and then my stepmother wanted him back.

I remember not wanting to live with him anymore because I never knew what was going to be happening at home.

I remember not wanting my friends to come over in case they crossed his path on a bad day. If they met him on a good day, it was worse because then they would never comprehend how scary he could be. Because my father could be so charming after he'd washed the day's dank auto grease off his hands and had a cold beer and a hard day's work behind him and my mother or stepmother was in the kitchen cooking dinner. He could be so smart and curious, so expansive and erudite. (I see now that a neighbor of mine who recently moved away unnerved me sometimes. My neighbor shared so many of my father's positive traits that part of me was on guard, waiting for that proverbial other shoe to be drop at any moment and he would turn brutish or explode in familiar counterpoint to a joyfully intellectual conversation.)

I remember a day when I was in bed trying to nap one afternoon about ten years ago. I couldn't let myself go into sleep. My mind raced, my heart pounded, and as I lay curled up on my side although I was fully clothed I felt my bottom was exposed and vulnerable. This felt more like a flashback than any other experience I have ever had. When I understood I was feeling I had been molested, I cried and wailed with grief and fury. To this day I don't know if what I experienced that afternoon was a memory of what happened to me or a reaction to feelings constructed from my experience and my sister's history.

Tonight -- just tonight, at the age of 52 -- I thought, even if my father didn't molest me personally, I am still angry. I am angry at him for crowding me and my sisters and our mothers into small spaces where we were supposed to stay weak and scared and violable. I am still angry at him for subjecting me to a culture that excuses the sick and twisted things powerful men do and minimizes opportunities for women and girls to do great and beautiful and meaningful things. I am angry because he hid his wealth from his family at his family's expense. I am angry because my mother is poor and suffers while he's off enjoying his millions.

So: I admit, I still haven't forgiven him.

I'm just now learning to forgive myself for not having fully let go of all of this attachment I feel to that flaming, righteous anger that flares up or surfaces as PTSD, causing flashbacks or crippling crises of confidence. It took me from age six to about ten years ago to forgive myself for not being there when my sister died. I have to forgive myself for not being able to protect my little sister from the man or men who stole sex from her when she was far too young to give consent.

I have found help and compassionate understanding in Brené Brown's work on vulnerability and shame and Byron Katie's process of taking apart the stories in our heads. These give me some perspective on who holds me back when I feel fear (big hint: it's not usually fathers or parents or ungrateful kids or partners or passive-aggressive friends or mean bosses). But even with these great tools readily at hand and heart, it is still not easy to forgive and let go of these feelings.

Yet every day I know I have to be kind and compassionate with myself and all my sisters. And I have to keep surrounding myself with people like my brother and sisters and husband and friends and family -- big-hearted people who believe in giving our children and women and men opportunities to grow and flourish. I know I have to work every day to make this world a safer and sturdier place for my nieces and sisters and mother and me. After all, my new niece might have big dreams. I want to make sure our world is ready for her.

07 August 2015

What I Like About Planned Parenthood

I have shared many times since my parents' good advice. When I was about fifteen they sat down with me when I asked them to, and they said: "Don't sleep with anyone you're not 100 percent sure you really like and trust. If you feel reservations, listen to those instincts and don't do it, because there's no going back."

So I didn't sleep with the person I was seeing then, or another person I dated after that. And I was glad, during and after. Those guys both broke up with me after that, which was fine with me. A while later I fell in love with someone I had known for several years. Suddenly he just looked so interesting and he had stuff going on in his mind that was funny and sharp and smart and he liked music maybe even as much as I did. We were in the same friend group and had started pairing off with other people when we looked up, looked at each other, and said, "Wait, you're the one that I want."

Throughout my childhood, truly as early as I can remember, I knew about bodies and sex because they were all around me. I spent a few of my formative years in the middle of seas of people who were exploring their bodies, minds, senses -- you name it and they were exploring it. I spent hours in Golden Gate Park, and in the flow and swirl of a hundred parties and concerts and love-ins when people ingested substances, dropped their inhibitions, and did things they never would have done back home, wherever that was.

But my personality is now as it was then both flamboyant and joyful as well as shy at the core. Back then I felt some dissonance. There was tension between what I wanted and what everyone around me wanted. One of my mother and father's friends, a tall, bearish fellow with frizzy honey-colored hair whom I loved and trusted like a dear uncle, once told me, "You don't have to be modest," when I covered my chest after realizing I had worn overalls with no shirt underneath. His well intentioned advice had the exact opposite effect on me, however; I felt exposed and embarrassed about wanting to be modest.

Because my mother had become pregnant with me back in 1962 without knowing much about how babies and anything else worked, she didn't want me to be a victim of that kind of ignorance. She gave birth to my sister at home, and she became a midwife when I was about 10 to help other families have their babies at home. The facts of life were all around us. My mother spent many hours telling me things at various times I was ready and not ready to hear. I am still grateful for her help diagnosing and solving a potentially dangerous problem I had once.

One of the best tools my mother ever gave me was Planned Parenthood. From being a midwife, and her own experience, she knew plenty about people who had babies before they were ready. She was always grateful for the existence of Planned Parenthood and she made sure I knew it was there if and when I needed it.

These days, clinics tend to mark out the names of the people who checked in before you at their reception desks, but back when I was fifteen and went to learn about my contraception options, seeing my classmates' names on the sheet made me feel good about checking in at the Planned Parenthood clinic. My mother asked whether I wanted her to come along and I had my first clinic visit with her present. I felt comfortable going on my own after that. When I was sixteen, I had a stressful moment that ended a week later when my Aunt Flo finally arrived . Not that we called my period that back then -- no euphemisms at our house! And everything worked flawlessly after that -- I was scrupulous in my use of contraception, and got to know the loving man who would nine years later become my husband (and to whom I am still married). Planned Parenthood was there for me -- for us.

I know some of our relatives might find my personal history shocking, but I am still so thankful for that time and space in my life. I had so many stresses at that time with trying to do well in school in preparation for college, and a custody battle in which I was finally standing up to my father and asking to live with my mother for a year before I graduated high school. I still feel that the intimacy my sweetheart and I shared during those difficult years made all the difference in how bearable my life was.

I saw more and more of my friends' names on my Planned Parenthood clinic's sign-in sheets over the next few years. I appreciated the support I felt for my teenage self's need to explore and be protected, and I appreciated having that support into my adulthood. Even though I now have insurance coverage and can see a network specialist for my gynecological needs, I continue to support Planned Parenthood because I appreciate their support fo my and other women's reproductive health and our autonomy and self-determination.

22 April 2015

Communal History: Gene Bernofsky's Gifts

We went to the KGNU Community Radio​ thank-you party at the History Colorado Center in Denver last night, and during the talk by historian Bill Cowern, I had another little a-ha moment that helped me fill in a little patch of the jigsaw puzzle that is my history. I was delighted to learn that one of my primary school teachers, Eugene V. Debs Bernofsky, and his wife JoAnn Bernofsky, were among the group of folks who settled near Trinidad, Colorado, in 1965 to found an experiment in living and doing art free of commerce. They and a couple of college friends and a growing community built a few geodesic domes they called Drop City. (Incidentally, they didn't call it Drop City because they were "dropping out" or because they took or "dropped" acid in the parlance of the day, but because their performance art origins involved literally dropping small objects on people as a way of getting them to pay attention, pelting people with things -- or ideas -- they called "droppings." Also, don't confuse this Drop City with T. C. Boyle's fictional version, set in California and Alaska, and containing more of the vibe of Olompali or Morning Star, the communes where we lived, than that of the original Drop City.)

I knew Gene Bernofsky because he was one of my teachers at Upland School, which I attended for grades 4 and 5. This teaching trio, comprising Gene and Suzanne Marsden, my new stepmother, and Lisa Johnson, made a valiant effort to keep up with my appetites for reading, writing, geography, and math. I remember Gene as enthusiastic, energetic, and a little unpredictable but in a good way -- you knew he was looking out for everyone. I remember his wife JoAnn as a centered, owl-eyed companion, a smooth and steady rudder to complement and direct Gene's churning energies. At Upland, I don't remember whether I knew Gene and JoAnn had also lived on a commune -- or maybe that made me feel a bond with them. I cringe to think it's pretty likely I asked him if he smoked pot. Gene told us stories about growing up in New York, about his Jewish heritage, and about being named after labor leader Eugene Victor Debs.

We then had a wonderful Gene-by-proxy experience when I went with my father, stepmother, sister, and brother to New York in about 1977 on an epic road trip from Colorado to the East Coast (22 states altogether! Plus Montreal!). Gene offered his Aunt Mary and her apartment in Brooklyn as a base for us during our stay in New York City. "Call her Aunt Mary," Gene assured us, which we debated about whether we should do but which actually did seem to delight her during the three days she so kindly hosted all of us. The worst part of that trip: I was on crutches by the time we got to NYC -- I had just broken my leg a couple of days earlier in Pennsylvania. The best part: We rented a wheelchair and people were incredibly nice to us, on subways and streets all over Manhattan and the boroughs. A man saw me in my wheelchair and foot and ankle in a big cast with my rain-soaked family huddling near the Gotham Hotel, dashed back into the hotel, and emerged moments later with a collapsible umbrella he insisted we keep as he jumped into a cab and sped away.

Like Gene, Aunt Mary was sweet and smart and interesting to talk with. And Aunt Mary worked for Bantam Books, a Penguin Random House imprint, so she had shelves and stacks of popular paperbacks all over her cheerful garden-level apartment. As we were leaving, she let me pick out a stack of books to take with me. I chose about 10 books. Some was fiction I enjoyed very much while my leg started healing over the next few weeks and umpteen states, including a suspense novel about a top tennis player who becomes the target for a sniper at Wimbledon. It's very modern for its moment: to throw off the sniper, the heroes do some trickery that depends on stretching out the gap between what is broadcast "Live" on TV and what is happening in real-time. And a dictionary plays a major part in the action -- what's not to love? But for some reason I remember equally vividly devouring the books Passages, by Gail Sheehy; Your Erroneous Zones, by Wayne Dyer; and a book about what your favorite and least-favorite colors say about your personality.

Since last night I have learned that Gene and JoAnn Bernofsky (Eugene Victor Debs Bernofsky, the namesake of the labor leader Eugene V. Debs) now live in Montana. He worked for the post office for a while and has been making films since before his Drop City days, but in more recent times has pedaled hundreds of miles around the region on his bicycle to record environmental abuses on camera.

I love discovering these things about Gene, a teacher to whom I have always been most grateful for sharing with me and the other kids Pete Seeger songs and Woody Guthrie songs, and playing us Ella Jenkins and other Folkways records we sang and plunked and clanged along with. What rich veins of musical and social history he shared with us youngsters. I wonder what the other kids remember.

Photo of teachers Gene Bernofsky and Lisa Johnson with children at Upland School, courtesy of Lisa Johnson
Gene's story reminds me that absolutely anything is possible in a lifetime. We are always getting fresh opportunities to do what matters most to us. To paraphrase Alan Watts in talk on "Intellectual Yoga," "Karma is not the law of cause and effect: 'If you do this, that will happen.' Karma simply means action. That you do whatever it is you do -- whether playing tennis, climbing mountains, or nursing sick patients -- as your dharma." Or, as I saw in one of those little photo-and-quote memes that sail around the internet, "Pray with your feet."

16 April 2015

Instincts vs. Impulses

The other day the brilliant and brave writer Elizabeth Gilbert (forgive me if I call her Liz -- she does so in her communications with her fans on Facebook and other social media platforms) posted about not following your instincts everywhere they lead.

I commented that in my dictionary, instincts are the things that make the hair stand up on the back of your neck when you know you are being watched, or the sense that tells me to reply, "No, thanks, I couldn't possibly" when certain people offer me rides or favors, or the tickle of gooseflesh on my skin when I hear a story about a manifestation created by the requester and the benificent forces of our universe.

But I think it's worth thinking about the difference. If I can be honest with myself about what I am feeling, I can ask myself questions like, "Do you want to go to this event on Saturday? Do you feel you should go, or does it feel like the wrong thing to do?"

In learning self-defense, I was grateful not only for the advice that your instincts often give you a lot of information about a situation, but also for this piece of advice in particular: When you have options, choose to avoid dangerous situations in the first place. I was glad to get this advice early in my adult life; it has served me incredibly well. I don't know how many times I have instinctively sought out a safer situation when my instincts told me something was awry or I was particularly vulnerable.

But I can think of plenty of instances when I chose to interpret my desires to do things as signs: Giant, flashing, neon signs saying, Yes! Yes, I should do this thing!, which I've noticed over the years can create an unhealthy feedback cycle. Because once you've started doing something, it's easier to find confirmation bias that affirms your brilliant choice, and ignore other signs that say, "You really don't need to take this four hours away from your writing to go shopping at thrift stores."

I maintain that what makes me want to say yes and ignore all those pesky indicators to the contrary are my impulses, not my instincts. My impulses tend to obscure my instincts. Does this ring true for you?

01 April 2015

Baroque Pop and Me

This morning, Uncle Jeff, the DJ on KGNU's Morning Sound Alternative show, is playing Baroque Pop, a favorite genre from my childhood and into the present. His show is placing songs I didn't appreciate before in context with all these other favorite sounds (like the Rolling Stones on Flowers/Ruby Tuesday/Those Satanic Majesties; The Beatles on Sgt. Pepper) that I loved so very much then and still do. A backing track version of Ruby Tuesday by Studio Sound Group is revelatory -- I used to listen to that song so closely that this version feels like something I was listening for, despite my great love for Mick Jagger.

I have a deep love for disco and funk and even some R&B, but I think my love for these genres may have originated with these gender-bending Baroque Poppers and Psychedelians, all the Prog-Rockers and Glam-Rockers I grew up with and listened to. Uncle Jeff talked about wanting to be one of those guys, the glamorous fops in their Carnaby Street fashions (remember Mary Quant?) with the red velvet jackets and the big floppy hats -- I did too.

That's one of the multitudinous reasons I have to write fiction, and why I remind myself to weave this kind of richness into my work wherever I can. I also listen to music, and have been trying my hand at lyrics lately, too. I said to myself, "Self, if I were to write a song for OK Go, how would it go?" That's not too high a bar. It sure is fun to explore, and to make things come out the way I want in the end in songs and stories.

So go listen to some music or do something that turns your imagination loose and wild! And I hope you'll come back and share with me what makes you tick creatively.

24 February 2015

Eight Things I Learned from Painting My House

Ah, the listicle--the article comprising a list of elements that all purport to answer a question. What did you learn from painting your house? I need to know! Why? Because I might paint my own house someday. Because I might find a lesson I can use in some other Big Endeavor. So they always seem useful, full of potential, these so-called listicles (Listicles sounds a little obscene, doesn't it?)

But I did learn a few things from painting the interior of my house, and I am happy to share them with you.

1. The preparation and restoration takes about 80 percent of the total project time. This means moving stuff around, patching, sanding, removing hardware, and masking. Once you get to the 20 percent--the painting--it feels great! But be sure you save some energy for the unprep work: removing tape, putting away the drop cloths, vacuuming up all the bits of paint and dust, and reinstalling your drapery hardware, shelving brackets, lightswitch and outlet covers, and picture-hanging hardware. Oh, and moving all your stuff back into place. 
2. Coverage: If the can says the paint will cover 350-400 square feet, it probably will. Barely. Don't assume you can stretch it. Even if you add water to thin your paint, as when applying paint using a compressor-powered paint sprayer instead of brushes and rollers, you only add a small amount of water (1 part water to 32 parts paint). So estimate conservatively or suffer the consequences: your paint won't cover, and you'll certainly need two or three coats--more time.
3. "Do not overwork" is one of the instructions on the side of the bucket of spackling paste I went through in doing this project. It applies to painting, and lots of other activities, too. Before your drywall putty or paint is starting to dry, you want to get your final smoothing strokes in with your putty knife or damp finger, or with your brush. Or you'll end up with a bumpy surface that attracts dust and dirt over time.
4. Be patient. It may take a couple of passes to get it right. I patched several places on walls and doorframes that required more than one application of putty to fill the dents. And when I painted our accent walls, I ended up going over every edge that butted against a contrasting color with a 3/4"-wide art brush to get the edges to look sharp. I couldn't mask the edges because our walls have too much texture--the paint would have seeped under the masking tape. So it was worth going over each edge, but it took time, especially for the bits that required the 20' extension ladder.
5. Get the right tools for the job. After painting a couple of rooms with a roller that kept pushing the roller cover off as I worked my way around the room, I went to the hardware store and found one that cost $6 and had an easy-to-use extender. Not only did it keep the roller covers on throughout the project, it also saved me unnecessary trips up and down a stepstool to paint the higher parts of the wall. Another cool product I learned of is Ramboard, a sturdy cardboard that protected our newly refinished wood floors from the insults of the bathroom-remodeling process, and then we kept it around a little longer for the interior painting project. It really helped.
6. Take care of your equipment. I learned this when I painted houses during college. That means rinsing brushes for minutes, until the water runs mostly clear
7. A corrolary of #6 is: Your equipment won't necessarily last forever. Brushes last pretty well, Most roller covers I've found can't be used for more than a few rooms before you need a fresh one. 
8. Do the work in order. Clear stuff out of the path and away from all walls. Remove hardware (lightswitch and outlet covers) and tape over the outlets and switches if you tend to slop paint around like I do when I'm working at a fast pace. Scrape, patch, and sand, and then vacuum up the dust before you start taping. Tape off woodwork, light fixtures, and contrasting walls (if the walls don't have a lot of texturing). Paint from one side of the room to the other and from the top of the wall down, so you know what you have already done and where you still need to paint if you have to stop in the middle to answer the phone or the door. Wait for the paint to dry completely (see the instructions on the paint can) before applying more paint or replacing the hardware on newly painted surfaces.

Once you've done all that work, you are rewarded for years by beautiful, fresh walls, in any color you like. For me it's worth the trouble.

13 August 2014

That Was Zen, This Is Now

“Fuck it! It was only a hobby!”
    –Carolyn See, Golden Days

I experience my life in multiple modes. One of my modes is action. I need to go to dance classes and ride my bike and keep doing little chores and projects and tackling work obligations to keep my life moving and my interactions with people fresh. When I was a newish mom and was feeling like I wasn't getting quite enough movement in my life or my kiddo's, I thought, “What would Sporty Mom do?” and it helped me think about myself differently, and have more ideas. I go to my dance class several times in any given week. When I'm edgy, my family will ask me, “Do you have a dance class?” in the kindest way. If I put myself in the “sporty” category in my mind, I'm more likely to be creative about finding ways to move. 

Another mode is rest and recovery. Whether spent on sleeping, eating, reading, or sex, this is time that brings me back to equilibrium after interactions or activities become frenetic or fraught, and time that reminds me that while I have the ability to be extraverted, I'm truly an introvert at heart.

Another is the emotionally ruminative mode. In the background, behind the emails and chores and calls and projects and research and internet rabbit holes, I am working through a tricky problem or idea in my head over time, chewing it and stretching it into different orientations and sizes and shapes to see where it leads me.

Today, in my ruminations, I circled back to the topic of forgiveness, which I remembered was the topic of the first piece I had my last writing group read.

At the time, I wanted to set the stage with that group, to tell them I had been through something exceptional and had issues with the whole forgiveness position. I understood how the Dalai Lama teaches you to let go of those grudges and resentments for they only serve to bind you more tightly to that person, but I thought, surely there's more I can do than just to turn the other cheek or walk away!

Again recently I started thinking about forgiveness, in part because I am spending more time with my sister and we're talking about our memories and feelings about what we survived, and it's the first time we've spent big swaths of time while both sharing the same perspective. For a long time, we'd say, “It's like we had different childhoods,” which was true for many reasons, yet saying it tended to reinforce our differences rather than emphasizing what we had in common. Now, we look at our father's issues, and our mother's issues, and we say, “It's a freakin' miracle both of us are alive and well!”

So both of us as we age are finding peace in being ourselves and following our dreams and paths and coming to terms with what we lived through and who we are today, but at the same time there's still a voice in that rumination asking, “Is there something more I can do with this?”

The answer is pretty much always yes; for me it's a matter of picking something, and keeping it positive. I am not writing my book to get revenge on my parents for being who they were, even though to them it may feel like it when they read it. I can't help that, I see now, but I can help myself by speaking my truth and telling the story as I saw it. And I hope by doing so, I'll be making the world a little safer for others who need to tell their stories.

So back to forgiveness. I asked the other night as we were doing dishes, “What's the flip-side of forgiveness?” and had to go chew on that for a couple of days. This morning I thought about the work it takes to judge others, how exhausting it is to continuously decide who's doing it right and who is doing it wrong.

Aha! That's what it is about forgiveness that is so insidious to me, I realized. It takes a lot of energy just to say whether you think someone deserves forgiveness. It requires you to judge another person.

I know my nearest and dearest will recognize I am pointing at something I do all the time, but what I noticed looking at it from this perspective is how exhausting that process of judging is, how far it pulls me from my center and my passions.

In her eyes and on her face and lips I can see my sister has found some peace, too. I think she and I are feeling peaceful because we are not engaged and actively judging and resenting but getting on with what we need to do. And it turns out that getting on with what we need to do is not always about forgiving those who have trespassed against us or neglected us in times of need but about giving ourselves what we need, which enables us to see what we have to give ourselves and the families and friends to whom we devote ourselves today. Maybe that is forgiveness, but I see it more as a kind of grace, which I probably wouldn't recognize without some help from the brilliant Anne Lamott.

Grace lets me move beyond the notions of attachment versus letting go. This is fine with me because I feel strongly that there are times and places when it is appropriate to be attached – to feel and react when we have been wronged or neglected. If we didn't have those feelings, how would we know to act on what we know in our souls is right and true?

For me, the less time I spend judging people, the more peace I experience. Where's your peace?

25 July 2014

Godfamilies are good families

24 years ago today, I learned that our dear friend and former college housemate Erica was in labor. I was living in San Francisco and drove over the Golden Gate Bridge. At Marin General, I learned Erica had given birth very recently. So I got to hold Mark and Erica's tiny baby, named Rachel Stella, when she was just a couple of hours new. It was a joyful moment, especially in light of the fact that Mark and Erica later asked me and my husband to be her godparents. They clarified that a catastrophe for them would not result in our becoming her custodial parents – an uncle was already signed up for that role – but would mean we would be in the circle of friends and family who would become her tribe as she came up in the world.

Sadly we moved away from the Bay Area shortly after we accepted this honor, and it's a little harder to be active in someone's upbringing when you're a thousand miles away. But it's been lovely to become acquainted with our goddaughter over the years, and see her sister grow up into herself too. We've hosted them for a couple of ski trips that we'll always remember fondly.

As a kid, I had a lot of people who loved me and looked out for me everywhere I went, maybe because I was enthusiastic and curious most of the time and willing to chat with people a lot of the time. When I was a teenager, my mother realized she hadn't named a godparent and decided her best friend Marcia was the one. Marcia accepted the honor, godmothering me and my sister. That has become a source of love in my circle many times over as my godmom has two beautiful daughters. Now one of the daughters has three kids of her own, and so the circle keeps expanding to admit more.

As an adult, my circle shifted dramatically away from all those people I grew up with at different times in my childhood – people like Vivian and Hari way back at Olompali, and my family's friends Frank and Phee, Diane, George, Bob and Barbara, Marcia, and many others. There was attrition as people died or moved away or joined different circles, and my circle filled in with other people my age, some of whom have remained close to me. My own big moves back and forth between Colorado and California seemed to exacerbate that.

Few of those non-family members know me well today. I loved Judy dearly, and remained friends with her until her very end, but she's been gone for more than four years. I did some of the shifting by moving to California after graduating from high school. At the time I could not fathom staying in Colorado. I knew every nook and cranny of my town and wanted to go elsewhere. I'd never pictured myself staying.

But we have been friends ever since we met our roommate Erica, and she later married our mutual friend Mark. Having been appointed a member of their daughter Rachel's inner circle continues to give me warm feelings. I like knowing I am there not only for my husband and daughter but also for Rachel and her sister as they set out in the world. It feels good to know my godmother and godsisters are there for me, too. And I know my friend whom we chose to be there for our daughter as her godmother will live up to her pledge, no matter what happens between her and me.

We godfamilies are always a place where members our tribe can land. We will always have room for the others. How fortunate we are for these tribes, for loving and being loved by them.

23 July 2014

Scenes from this year's Indian Nepalese Heritage Camp

Here are a few scenes from my experiences at the 2014 Indian Nepalese Heritage Camp, just to give you a little more of the flavor of Camp.

On Thursday evening, the first night of Camp, most families arrive at Snow Mountain Ranch YMCA near Tabernash, Colorado in time for the barbecue dinner (grilled hot dogs, burgers, and veggie burgers), held indoors or in the park, depending on the weather ("If you don't like the weather in Colorado, wait five minutes and it will change," we like to say). This year the dinner was inside, in the Kiva, a cavernous building area that houses a rollerskating/games/climbing wall at one end and at the other end we have tables and chairs, a stage and a sound system, tables for a registration/administration area, and a village of little painted plywood buildings for the littler kids. The Kiva is the all-purpose room for several of the gatherings and groupings of our 100 families, plus counselors, and community members. A variety of additional camp activities are distributed elsewhere around the YMCA campus over the next two-and-a-half days.

I was in the Kiva filling my plate with veggie burger, watermelon, and dessert. At the condiments table, a teenager I knew asked for help.

"I don't know you, but could you please help me get some baked beans?"

"Of course," I said. As I shook some ketchup onto his plate and scooped a spoonful of baked beans out of the giant can, I added, "You might not remember me, but you know me. I saw you when you were still at IMH." He thanked me politely, perhaps looking at me a little more curiously because of my comment, and then went to dine with his family and friends.

I feel like we already know each other on some level because he had been at the orphanage when we had come to adopt our daughter. There, everyone we met said he was the little prince of the orphanage, that he was always at the center of things. At the orphanage, I saw the massis (caretakers) and sisters (nurses) chuck his little chin and cheeks, saying affectionately that he knew everyone's comings and goings and he had a say in everything that went on there. At the time, I felt the complicated mix of pleasure and remorse about our being there to adopt a little five-month-old baby girl, when here were one-, two-, and three-year-old children who still needed families, some of whom had disabilities, special needs, or all of the above. It had been a long time since I thought of that.

That Thursday night as we pumped ketchup and mustard out of large plastic jugs onto our picnic plates, I wondered what it was like for him to be plopped down at age two-and-a-half or three into a family in the United States with several other kids after being master of a universe in an orphanage in India. What does he remember about his toddlerhood? I remember him and some of the other children so well; I see the ones who come to Camp grow up into themselves a little more every year, while they still look out from the same eyes and faces they had when they were babies and small children. I saw one girl whom I'd met when she was a toddler with close-cropped hair. Now those same glittering eyes crinkled as she laughed with her friends and tossed her dark ringlets, which reached halfway down her back. I wonder when I see my daughter and her orphanage mates every summer whether any of them still remember when other parents and people came to take the little babies away. Did any of their little best friends get adopted before they did?

So it started early at INHC, all the thinking about all the facets of our shared journeys, all the wearing of different shoes.


On the second day of camp, I looked for people who needed help but no one did, so I went into the Kiva to see what was happening. One of the community members was setting up a clay lantern-making craft and four women were seated in front of slabs of cool, soft terra cotta. People in India make little lanterns like these to celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, and this year's camp theme was the festivals of India and Nepal. A little cool clay appealed to me greatly, so I sat down to my own slab of clay and started mashing it around to see what it wanted to be.

"Some people paint them after they have dried. Someone made a bird on theirs," the instructor said.

I started forming an elephant's head and legs. Another person made a paisley shape and paved it beautifully with shiny gemlike stones. Another person made an elephant head. A fellow joined us and made a clay hand, modeled on his own. I made my elephant's body into a dish and attached four stubby, squat legs that wouldn't come off. I made a head separately, thinking I would attach it later. I squished clay into ears, trying to make them look India-shaped (because Indian elephants have ears that are shaped like India), and pinched and poked clay to make a trunk. I found a way to hang the head on the body, which was the dish for the candles to rest in. A few times people remarked on how soothing it felt to work the clay. One of the directors saw us crafting quietly and called us the "rehab group," which cracked her up, and us too.
Diwali clay elephant lamp

Later I said to her, "That was one of the most fun activities I've done at Camp in years!" I felt a little bad for saying that when we've done huge projects with grand conclusions like building houses and making movies in our recent past, but sometimes it's those quiet, contemplative shared moments that unfold into peace of mind and heart.


On Friday evening, we attended the party the camp throws to feed and thank the coordinators and their families, who all sacrifice on some level to contribute to Camp, whether financially, with supplies, or with physical labor or attention during Camp. I felt funny in a way about being there this time, even though officially I had a coordinator role. But this year every time I offered help, I was gently told, it's okay, we have that handled. So I went to sessions and made myself generally available if anyone needed me. But I sure didn't feel like a coordinator this year, so going to the coordinator party made me feel a little squirmy, like I shouldn't really have taken advantage of the offering. At the same time, we have repeatedly declined offers to stay in one of the reunion cabins, the multi-room cabins rented by the camp to house all the directors, community members, dance teachers, and counselors at Snow Mountain Ranch YMCA. We prefer camping so that we have some time outside, with the astounding variety of skies and colors and clouds and views of the Indian Peaks in the distance. So we really appreciate the coordinator party because it is lovely having someone else cook for us that one night.

One hour later, my husband and daughter and I had all eaten our fill of savory foods and the trays of rich, honeyed baklava glistened on the table, no one yet hungry enough to take the first piece. I had changed out of my camp t-shirt, which I wear most of the weekend, and put on a casual salwar kameez (loose pants and tunic dress) of light cotton. I felt a little dowdy. My daughter teased me about already having spilled on my outfit. We chatted and joked with my daughter's crib-sister and her family. We were joined by one of the directors and her daughter. We bantered and chatted and laughed about the day's events, in-jokes, and whatever else caught our fancies. I thought: I'm so glad I do this. I do this so my daughters can feel comfortable in this place, in this way, with all these people.

My friend Fran, the mother of my daughter's crib-sister, so a kind of family member to me over the past decade-plus, asked what my favorite thing about Camp is. I looked around the room and said to her, "It's really about this right here: the rainbow of people who come here together to do this every year."


In one of the adult workshops, we learned what middle-school and high-school kids had talked about in their sessions called "This Is Me." A social worker and psychologist presented posters the kids had made during their session that listed first all the annoying stuff they had to deal with as adoptees or members of mixed-race families -- or simply as teenagers (some of the kids who attend are siblings of adopted kids, some biological kids and some adopted from countries other than India and Nepal, and some of the kids are the kids of the community folks who present many of the workshops for kids and adults). Then the kids had listed some of the good things about their culture and being adopted. In the negative column were things like "Dumb questions" (e.g., "So, did your parents not want you and that's why you were adopted?") and "Stereotyping", and in the positive column were things like "Music", "Dance", "Skin", and "Education" or "Information".

At one point during the "Dumb questions" discussion in the adult workshop, I raised my hand to share an observation. "Looking at this as an adoptive parent," I said, "it seems like our adopted kids have a double burden in terms of self-advocacy. I mean, first everyone has to learn to advocate for themselves, which isn't easy in and of itself. But these kids have to do this extra layer of self-advocacy. It makes me see how important it is for us to support them, as their parents and community."

"Yes, this may be," said the presenter, "but we don't ever put ideas in the kids' mouths about this. We try to ask them open-ended questions and let them come up with the answers. We never put words in their mouths." Ah, yes, I thought, nodding. I can just be there for them, because it can be exhausting over time to field all those "where are you from?"s and those double-takes people do when they see our family (the ones that always prompt me to say, "Mental math! They're doing their mental math, trying to figure us out."). But I see how there's no need to give anyone a chip on their shoulder. We just need to help our kids get the information they need to be informed about their history and culture and food and current events, and some emotional-intelligence tools for fielding the dumb questions and stereotypes, so they can keep moving beyond those and toward what they truly want and need to do in the world. The kids feel pride in what they know of their cultures and often have the attitude that with a little more information, everyone could be more comfortable in their skin, including them. This is truly what INHC is all about.

Namita Khanna Nariani, one of the facilitators of the teens' workshop, who also happens to be the head of the Mudra Dance Studio, described a situation with a student from India she had learned about who had moved to a new community and was at a new school. He had special needs, and brown skin, and was persistently getting bullied by his classmates. He was fearful and small, in danger of fading away. He didn't want to live.

One of the student's teachers called Namita for help. Namita came to teach the students in his class about Indian dance. She did a performance with her dance troupe, and then led the students in learning a couple of styles of Indian dance -- Punjabi, Bhangra, etc. As she taught them dances and explained some of the history, Namita was delighted when one of the Latino students in the class noticed, "This is a lot like our salsa dance." By the end of the dance instruction, the class had completely opened the boy and his culture up to his classmates, and their relationship changed completely. The boy felt proud of his culture, and felt cool for coming from the place where these fun dances had originated, and his cultural pride spilled over into pride in himself. The students learned more about him, and the bullying stopped. After the session, I talked with Namita, and teared up as I thanked her for all she does.

22 July 2014

A dozen years at Indian Nepalese Heritage Camp

It's been another incredible summer, jam-packed with joyful occasions, strewn with surprises -- some of which have felt warm and wonderful to discover and others that make us look around and treasure each eyeful of scenery or love radiating from our planet or our people or our pets, because any one of them could be the last.

Our summer began with a trip to Los Angeles, where we gathered with family to celebrate my sister's recent wedding. It seemed so fitting that we found a restaurant for the event -- our grandfather might not have liked the place, but would have approved of the gathering. I was thrilled that all but one of my family members joined us (one was ill). Even the ones who live over on the Westside came -- by bicycle! (It took them a few hours each way, and they had to leave a bit early because they forgot a bike light.) After we returned home, our birthday march commenced, peppered with Father's Day, our anniversary, and the 4th of July holiday.

But the culminating event of the summer was Camp.

"Camp?" you ask. "What camp?"

Every year except one since our daughter was a year old, we have gone up to the mountains, two hours from home, for Indian Nepalese Heritage Camp, which celebrates our children's Indian and Nepalese heritage and cultures. It happens every summer at a YMCA facility in Colorado's Rocky Mountains, 15 minutes from the ski town of Winter Park. When we started attending, it was still called East Indian Heritage Camp, because originally it was started to give the founder Pam Sweetser's child and all the kids coming to the Denver area (via our adoption agency, Friends of Children of Various Nations) a way to connect with their fellow adoptees from Kolkata (Calcutta) and explore aspects of their shared culture every year. Next year, I was thrilled to learn, a couple of young women who attended the first camp as children, came back year after year as campers, then counselors, then coordinators, are going to be co-directors of the camp.

One amazing thing is ours isn't the only camp. There are camps every weekend all summer long -- for Chinese, Cambodian, Eastern European, and other adoptees. But I love our camp. As a group, we pull off some ambitious and amazing projects, and there's a dance party at the end that's all about inclusion in the best ways (except for the part where the loud volume drives many people out of the room). Every year at Camp, there are great things, overwhelming aspects, tricky bits, interesting people, and big personalities. Above all, though, there's a willingness to put all our children and young people at the center of everything for a long weekend and let them get to know each other and themselves just a little better.

For me personally, it's marvelous to be a part of this community rising up to support these people. I love knowing the community members better and better, and the other parents, and enlarging the circle to include new families of all shapes and sizes and constituents. My recent revelation about making coffee -- there are so many ways to make an excellent cup of coffee, not just one -- holds for making families, too. There are so many ways for people to join together as families, and INHC's wonderful array of families and community members proves this is true. One of the greatest things about Camp is how it acknowledges how the kids' adoptions and living in mixed-race families affects and creates their own unique culture.

Until I started volunteering at Camp, I often felt overwhelmed by the activities and the emotions they stirred up. I didn't know as many families, and I often felt like an outsider. Looking back, it is clear we adopted our daughter at a peak in Indian adoptions -- hardly anyone is adopted from India these days (more kids are coming from Nepal now). What this has meant for us is our daughter grew up with a bunch of kids from her orphanage she now sees every summer at Camp. Now, having attended 12 years of these camps, we don't feel like outsiders in any sense. We weren't outsiders when we'd only attended once, but I couldn't help feeling like we were back then. For our daughter, it has not felt like she left India and never went back -- it's felt like she left India and a whole bunch of the kids came with her! (And then we went back, but that's another story, or several.) And she's never been "the only one" -- since we became her parents, we have had a community of families with kids adopted from India and other places around us, and camp has reinforced and extended our connections to these families.

For the last few camps, I have had larger volunteer roles, which definitely helped me feel more a part of everything. This year I volunteered to help with the audio/visual equipment, in part because of the loudness of some of the events. But every time I went to offer help, though, I was assured other folks had it under control. So I just offered support where I saw a need, which worked out well. This year I got to go to some of the adult sessions and enjoy conversations with other new and long-attending families. I reconnected with a former coworker who since adopted a child from China and a younger one from Nepal, and I participated in the adult dance performance, which I always love.

The hardest thing about writing about Camp is knowing how much to explain, and again I find myself not knowing where to begin. For what it is -- just over two days of workshops for kids and adults on dance, cooking, culture, and adoption/mixed race issues -- it has such a huge impact on our lives. Any questions? Please ask!

26 June 2014

Playing and being played

I just gave my cats a little electric guitar concert. I hadn't gotten out my fuchsia solidbody Godin for a long time; I had forgotten how messed up its pickups are and felt embarrassed for never having gotten around to getting them fixed. But on some of the pickup combinations the sound is just fine, and I have a booming chorus amp that adds to my meager musical efforts as much distortion and reverb and overall glow as I like at any given moment. This makes my little wanderings more fun, but loud for the little cats with big ears.
    Nora has probably heard me play two or three times in the two years she's been a part of our family. Her whiskers and tufted ears leading the way, Nora followed me into my office, her plume of tail high. Nora lowered her tail and crept closer to the amp's speaker as I played. She stopped, shook her head as if to shed the excess sound from her ears, and turned and trotted out of deafening range. She and Jack watched me from the sidelines as I played. Even though I didn't think the volume was that loud, the cats did look concerned from their vantage points at the edge of the room.
    When I play music awkwardly, or sit down to write without knowing what I will say until I say it, I feel sort of like a teenager who is about to graduate from college and doesn't know what is going to happen next. I feel perfectly positioned to take Tosha Silver's advice to do my things (because even though writing and storytelling is my main thing, there's more than one thing with me, always) and  see where the divine leads me. I feel more willing than ever to put myself in the hands of something that's not me, which is both a very new sensation and a very old sensation.
    It's a new sensation in that my judgments and skepticism have been falling away. I wonder lately whether each of us has a field of energy interacting with everyone else's energy field, or auras that mix and match or clash or that glow bright or dim according to circumstances or health or interactions with others. It's like starting with three colors of paint and combining them to make more colors: each time you mix two colors, you get something different. If there's one thing I've learned from my mother's health issues, it's that we are all so different, each exposed to a different set of hazards, blessed with a different set of genetic strengths and environmental advantages while having a unique achilles heel in each of our reactions to toxins, pollution, allergies, or other insults to our health.
    This sensation of turning my ... fate, for lack of a better word, over to something as vague as “the divine,” as Tosha Silver says, is also an old, familiar one in that I've always thrown the I Ching when I have not known what I wanted or where I was going. Sometimes I turn to the the ritual of shaking three pennies six times and recording the hexagram so I can look it up in the I Ching for advice, but it's more that I want some landmarks as I continue on my way, some signposts indicating what I should remain mindful of as I walk down the next section of the path. I trust that my contact with the coins will lead me to something I need to know at this moment. My edition of the I Ching has two different books that each list interpretations of each hexagram, so I look up the hexagram in each book to make sure I don't miss some detail I should to pay attention to, just the way I look up two different recipes for the same new dish so I understand how the recipe is supposed to work in theory, not just in one instance.
    Today I admitted to my sister that I've been having this growing sensation that science isn't all it's cracked up to be, that there's information I feel science's reductionist explanations leaves out, possibilities science doesn't admit. It's all these little coincidences that make me feel that way, and the ongoing feeling that the more I take chances and pick things up, the more things are being put in my path when I need them. I read about the actress Mila Kunis today, who said she decided to say yes for a year, instead of trying to protect herself, and a lot of great things happened as a result during that year as a result of all that yesing. I think my friend Hanna once said something to me about doing that, too, but I never really tried it.
    These days I feel I'm saying yes a lot, trying creative enterprises, asking for jobs that look interesting, and trusting the universe will say yes in one way or many. I also told my sister anything could happen; if getting a technical writing job is the next thing I do, that is part of it all, part of how I can serve my family and community, and I'll still have all these other things to offer, more things to which I can say yes.

21 June 2014

Strategies for Sports and Life

The only thing that ever makes me say, “I wish I could go back and do this over again” about my middle-school years is sports. I abhorred the chaos of basketball and soccer, while also being fascinated by the games in the abstract. I admired people who could ride unicycles or juggle, like my friends, or do cartwheels, like my long-limbed and slender mother, and I was curious about friends who went skiing every weekend, but for a long time I thought I had little in common physically with them.
In high school I took up running, skiing, and tennis. I loved hitting the ball around but wasn't competitive enough to become a strong player. I was not so assertive back then, either, and felt confusion about the difference between assertive and aggressive. The idea of fighting to get better at a sport was alien to me. I liked skiing because I was good at things you need time to do, like writing and reading and art. Things you could do and redo, not these we-have-to-play-the-best-game-ever-or-we'll-all-go-down-together, do-or-die contests of wiles and will.
A funny thing happened on the way to my gym classes, though. I started to notice that yeah, maybe I wasn't so great at pull-ups or push-ups, but I could ski or run or bike a few miles without feeling like I was going to throw up. And I loved that burst of energy and clarity that always occurred somewhere in my workout (the endorphins kicking in, no doubt) and felt that Aha! I'm-up-where-I can-see-again sensation.
My endurance has helped in all sorts of situations since. I tried trekking on cross-country skis, downhill skiing, and bicycling. I paddled rafts but especially loved taking a big oar boat through the rapids myself, analyzing the river to see the best path (there's that strategizing again).
But I do wish sometimes that I could go out and play soccer in a field with a bunch of people knowing what I know now. I see those But you could!s sputtering on your lips, but the problem with going out and playing soccer now is that given what I know now, I wouldn't play soccer on this set of knees. I've had surgery for meniscal tears on both knees and can just keep them happy and me fit with dance, biking, hiking, skiing and some squats. But given my current condition, soccer, distance running, gymnastics, and telemark skiing aren't going to be where I get my exercise highs. So hooray for my happy fortune in finding activities I love that literally make me leap for joy and stretch my body and soul. And hooray for the orthopedic surgeon and physical therapists who have helped me continue to use my legs for function and fun.
Recently, on my way home from my dance class, I stopped at a yard sale where I bought a tiny, intricately built cribbage set inlaid with metal strips to indicate the bounds on the scoring board. It had a piece of scrimshaw of a happy looking moose glued onto it. Last night I printed out the rules, tweaking the formatting until I could get them all on a single sheet of paper, which I completely filled with 10-point type. While the rules looked lengthy, I remembered cribbage as a fun game, even if it was one at which I often got skunked or double-skunked (I can't even bear to think about those times I was triple-skunked).
Back in about 1977, when I was about 14, my stepfather, Yankee, started me how to play cribbage. It is a game in which you set aside a couple of cards that go into the dealer's “crib,” essentially a second hand. You then take turns with an opponent laying down cards and accumulating points, to a maximum of 31 points and then you start again. Then you add up all the points for combinations of cards and runs. During each round of play, the score for the dealer's crib is added, so the dealer essentially gets to play two hands. Then the deal alternates and the new dealer gets the crib. You play to 121 points, usually, which is one point more than four “streets” of 30 points, which you score by placing pegs along a track on a board, leapfrog-style so you can see your existing score while you peg additional points.
But it all sounds more elaborate than it is, because there are limited ways to earn points. Play is fast-paced and you score points frequently. But you definitely have to think ahead about how to maximize the points, and you have to make decisions about what cards to keep when you are salting away cards in your crib as the dealer or which cards to pawn off on your opponent (the “pone” in cribbage-speak) when it's their crib. In other words, you need to strategize.
I have found learning to strategize one of the true pleasures of my life. A soccer team setting up a goal attempt a full minute before the ball is kicked toward the net, it turns out, requires as much planning and forethought as working out the details of a plot that involves multiple characters. When writing fiction, you have to be able to store things away to add later, or keep certain things out of certain characters' hands so they don't use them to hijack the story (a mistake I confess I've made more than once in my fiction).
I used to get mad at my stepfather because he knew all the cribbage scoring tricks – like getting two points for “his nobs” as the dealer when he'd turn up a jack as the top card of the deck.
My sister, my brother, and I all remember the night of the horrific carroms game with our father Steve a little differently, but we all remember it. Well, maybe my stepmother used her magical  religion's brain powers to clear that one out of her memory banks, but the rest of us remember it. It was one of those nights when my father was being a sore loser, this one worse than most. One of us was winning, and my sister and I remember differently who it was, but it didn't matter. What mattered was our father was losing, and he didn't like it. After a missed shot, he had a tantrum and threw the carroms and board across the room.
None of us wanted to play anymore (how's that for understatement?), but our father didn't want to walk away from the game because he was still losing. Emotional terrorism is what I call that now, and I had some serious unlarnin' to do when I sailed blithely and arrogantly into my adulthood.
And I wonder why I was never all that competitive. And why people thought I was.
But those cribbage games (and gin, backgammon, and pool, too) with my stepfather helped me learn so much about planning to win, not just winning. Those games challenged me enough to make me want to win against my stepfather (for once). The games were just tough enough to make me want to learn how to find the most bonus points along the way, not just when we stopped to total everything at the end. And the games were fun. He wanted me to learn well, so he would have a good opponent, not just someone he could knock down and win against every time.
While I had to discover my physical gifts on my own (yes, I can learn choreography! and bike or ski for hours!), my stepfather was the one who taught me all about grace in winning – and losing. He taught me true sportsmanship.