I am so tired, I have a cold, I have to read about ad rates, which I dread.
But I must put one foot in front of the other. That is what it takes to run a marathon.
This morning the hills were red gold and the sky was blue. Our beds were cozy and we all are battling sleepiness and bodies that feel like lead. But I got up, put on my shoes, my brand new jog bra, my sweat shirt, grabbed my music, and headed for the reservoir. My feet were so heavy, my muscles tight. My training manual said this was a pull back week, a recovery week. Oh, Lordy, please let it be so.
I got out on the path, and the air smelled like pine needles, the Hollywood Sign reflected perfectly in the stillness of the water, and my city lay below me wrapped in mist (and smog). (I tried to photograph but impossible to capture).
Not the Sierras, but beauty in my backyard.
I was slow.
But I did it. I ran. I finished. My head is clearer. And I know I have it in me--the energy to force myself to just move a little when I don't want to. To put on my shoes, head out, move foward.
Everyone is different, but for me, writing is like sculpting.
First, come up with the point of my story, and write my top, really tight. I really hone that, until it is sharp and clear and I can return to it like a roadmap whenever I get lost in the mess that I know will follow.
Then, I vomit everything in my notebook out in one giant, messy regurgitation that verges on incomprehensibility. The only thing I make sure I get perfect is my quotes. No sloppiness. I go long so I can cut them back later, but I have everything down. I have completed that stage on the story that is now plaguing me and giving me nightmares, and that I am literally using this blog to procrastinate from.
Then I wait a few days (if I have the time) for my mind to clear, and sort, and organize on auto-pilot, without any input from me. During those days I am jotting down points I do not want to leave out, and details I am afraid I forgot to put in, and larger themes that I think need to be enhanced. I also agonize. A lot.
Then I wade back in, with a giant cup of espresso and cream, and read through the run-on mess that shames me to death, right through to the end.
Then I take notes again, on what each section is supposed to do, the function it is supposed to perform in this story. I weed out redundancies and move things around. I start whacking away at all the verbal weeds, so I can see my story more clearly.
And then, like a sculpture emerging from rock, it begins to show its form. When it does, like right now, I start to get really excited. I can see it. I can see the form. I think it is going to be beautiful. I get a rush of energy. I drink more coffee. I also get depressed. My God! It is going to take so much work to hack the beauty and meaning and truth from this hunk of verbiage!
I realize how lazy my words can be, how ill-conceived many of my steps. I beat myself up a little, for not being one of those people who writes out a perfect outlines, then sets to work and creates a nearly perfect draft.
But I also start to have fun. I cruise through and see some sharp little phrases and surprising emotions that glitter like little gems in the mess. I pluck them out and polish them and try to build around them.
I am starting to see a little beauty, a little sense, a little logic.
I have so much more to do. I am still whacking with large clumsy instruments trying to get to the form, the big, beautiful form that will carry the whole narrative. But I know it is there. I can see it and I will not lose it again. This part is actually fun, even if it takes forever, and it pains me to think of what my time is actually worth on a story like this.
How about you?
What is your writing process?
Please do tell, because I really am so curious, and would love a break from my own neurotic writer's mind.
I am taking the plunge. I am going to try to run the L.A. Marathon.
Every year the runners go by and I clap so hard and so long my hands are still beating for hours afterwards. I cry with the emotion of it all and pledge that yes next year, really, next year, I will do it.
But I never do.
Part of it was that I always knew I could. It was not a serious challenge in the way that I wanted a challenge. It would just hurt. A lot.
At 44, it will still hurt a lot. But now I wonder if I really can do it. And the truth is, I don't know.
I trained when I was 33 and I pulled my hamstring a month before the race. At that time I had never injured anything in my life, so I was quite surprised. Now I have injured a lot of things, and I do not want to injure more, nor destroy my body for this. So my pledge is that I will train consistently, gently, but not to excess. If my body is breaking down, I quit.
In my mind I am still a kick-ass runner, but I have realized in the last year that many of my images of myself are woefully out of date. This is the misery of middle age. I think I am a cracker jack reporter and an awesome athlete. I remember myself at my peak, the day I dropped out of whatever it was I was doing to move onto the next stage of whatever it is I am doing in my life.
But re-entry is hard! Bumping up against the truth is brutal!
The reason for my marathon training is not just a last gasp of clinging to youth, however. There is a larger purpose. I am doing this to discipline my body, and my mind. I am doing it to teach myself to keep plugging along, keep putting in the time, keep going when I get tired, or depressed, or worn out, or discouraged. I am doing it for the metaphor.
You see, I have a bipolar approach to life. I like the high highs and the low lows. I like the maniacal bursts of energy followed by the collapse that comes from putting everything you have into a project and then falling in a dead, worn out heap. I really like that. That is why I travel, do journalism, create strange, masochistic deadlines for myself.
But, I know from the vantage point of middle age, of motherhood, that life is more of a marathon. And, for what lies ahead of me, I need to cling to the marathon image rather than the Mt. Everest image. I need to wake up, put one foot in front of the other, keep on keeping on, and stick to the schedule, all emotion aside. If I do, good things will happen. I will finish the marathon.
If I don't, I will pull a metaphorical muscle, injure a metaphorical part of myself, or, worst of all, give up. And so I dive in, pledging to not run too fast or too slow. To pace myself. To stick to my schedule. To run beautiful places and reward myself with weekend runs that uplift my soul (and wear out my body).
I am doing Hal Higdon's Novice Program. It is the easiest training program there is, designed for people who literally have never run in their lives. But for now, that is perfect for me. I just need to get to the finish line.
I bought my new running shoes (turquoise, with foam form soles) and set out for my maiden run around the reservoir this morning.
He was born outside Naples in Torre Annunziata and lived through the poverty of post-World War II Italy. He had his own studio in Rome, and then built a movie empire here in Hollywood.
I never met the man but I feel like I did. Jonathan worked as his assistant and producer for two years and I have lived off crazy Dino stories for years. When I am sad, or in need of diversion, I still turn to Jonathan and say, "Tell me a Dino story."
I have, of course, also seen many Dino movies.
I even feel like Dino made Jonathan love having just a little Italy in his life, a niche which I am happy to fill--because I am just a little Italy.
I can't tell you Jonathan's Dino stories here, because they are his. But I can tell you this, Dino's influence lives on in my life. As a result of Dino, when we went to Italy the first time together I told Jonathan to dress casually, and err on the side of pastel-colored cotton shirts, like all the young Italians in Naples. Instead he wore a well-cut Italian blazer, and nice button-downs. When we got to Rome he realized something: He was dressed like a 60 year old Italian man. Why? Because the only Italian he knew was Dino, and that was what Dino wore.
When we got to Naples we went to a great, but also totally ordinary little ristorante in Spaccanapoli. On the side-board, near the antipasti was a spaghetti pie. Jonathan went crazy. He said he had been looking for those ever since he left Dino, when the Italian cook would sometimes make them. It made me laugh. They are the quintessential Neapolitan leftover meal--made with extra pasta, eggs and parmesan cheese all whipped together and fried up as a warm pie. But I have made sure to cook it for Jonathan lots of times.
But more than that I know that Dino DeLaurentis lives on as a man who was hard-working, daring, and willing to risk everything he owned to finance a great movie. Sure, sometimes he was slimy, or crazy, or mad, and Jonathan had to sue him to get his final pay check, but he loved movies and his passion for great stories, for movies, infected my husband.
Yesterday, the day Dino died, Jonathan got preliminary funding for a movie he wrote from a movie company that is small, independent and bold--a lot like Dino. The producer and director are both cut of the Dino cloth.
Symbolic? Who knows.
I wish I had met the man. But I love the version of Dino that lives on in him through Jonathan.
I mourn his passing.
If you can: Have a perfect afternoon espresso in his memory.
Take your kids and vote today. Teach them it matters. Remind them that no matter how bad the candidates and, in California, how corrupt the props, this is our chance to educate ourselves and have a say. If we do not step up our state, and our country, will be hijacked by angry people and corporate interests. Vote.
Meanwhile, down LCW way, there is an election today, too, for Student Council. Above is the picture of Theo that he put on his campaign poster. Something like 10 kids in second and third grade will be elected.
When Jonathan and I heard there would be student council races at school we inwardly groaned. Isn't this too young? They always turn into popularity contests, no one ever does anything, and it brings out the Tracy Flick in everyone. Save our sweet children a little bit longer.
But here is what I love: out of 88 kids in second and third grade, 38 of them ran for student council. They all designed posters and they all wrote speeches. Yesterday they all read/spoke them from a podium made of a cardboard box, with a real microphone.
There were rules. No negative campaigning, no promises you can't keep. Focus on what you can do, not what you can't. That means concrete ideas (Crazy Hat Day! Pajama Day! A Trip to Somewhere!)
If only real politicians had to follow those rules!
Theo wrote his speech himself, and at Jonathan's urging practiced it nearly nightly.
It was good.
It went like this:
Hi. I am Theo. I am running for Student Council and I was thinking it would be fun to go to Descanso Gardens to see the nature, the flowers, the trees, and the animals. I love LCW. Do you love LCW? I can't hear you. Do you love LCW? If you have any ideas or concerns I will listen and I will bring them up in Student Council. Vote for me. Thank you.
On election day I worked lunch and there was a palpable buzz. One boy was wearing a white button down and a red and blue striped tie. He looked like a real politician--third grade style. I felt a pang in my stomach. I hoped my boy would be OK. I did not want his heart to be broken, his ego damaged. OK, a little projection here. But I worried for him. I prayed his speech delivery would go smoothly.
When I drove up to get the boys yesterday the principal, who has trained all of us not to talk in line to any of the walkie-talkie clad herders, spotted my car and rushed up to me.
She stuck her head in my window.
"Theo had the whole school cheering," she said, giggling for joy.
"What?" I was disoriented.
"During his speech! He got the whole school cheering!"
Theo climbed in. I asked him how his speech went.
"Good," he said. That was it.
"Did you get the whole school cheering?"
He does not even know how cool that is.
I think I am just from a low self-esteem, uncool generation. I never could have done that in second grade. Not what any of them did.
I told Jonathan about Theo and he was so delighted he asked me to tell him the story over and over and over again. I should add here that my brilliant husband is a rousing speaker and does have some latent political ambitions. I think he felt pride in Theo's speech the way I felt when Theo got up on a surf board. A little "That is my boy! He got that from ME!!!!"
And there is no doubt about that.
At dinner, just like all the weary politicians across America, we toasted Theo for doing his very best in a tough field.
Now there is nothing to do but wait.
I will keep you posted as the votes come in! Polls close at three, Pacific time.
We stood on the veranda, looking out over the ocean. It was a perfect fall day in California, when everything seems lit from within the air is perfect, and you remember that at its best, California really is the most glorious place in the world to be.
We ate dinner at long table filled with beautiful people. Our children played somewhere. We sipped our full-bodied red wine from big glasses and blissfully ignored them.
Suddenly our older son ran up behind us.
Benji fell in the hot tub!
This super cool couple had a gorgeous hot tub on their deck overlooking the ocean. When we saw it we knew someone would fall into it before the night was through, though I was betting on a tipsy woman in high heels, not one of my nimble billy goat boys.
I leapt up from the table and rushed inside.
"Oh, it was YOUR kid who fell in," someone shouted as we rushed by.
There was Benji, wet from head to toe, still warm from the jacuzzi. He was crying and crying. He was surrounded by a tribe of wailing and soothing Greek women (the party was held by a Greek family and we were eating Greek food and it was very dramatic like a Greek tragedy). He was wrapped in towels and crying and crying as this band of maternal women held him and dried him and loved him.
I grabbed him and took him into the bathroom. He had hit his head going in. The only thing not wet was his face. He was mortified because he had no clothes.
The hostess, who happens to be a designer of cool, comfortable surf clothing, which she sells in Malibu and Paris (I can 2) , swept in with a super soft T and a cool woman's-sweat shirt (Live, Love, Malibu, it said on the back).
Benji cuddled in my arms, warm from his dip in the hot tub.
And I wondered: Will this be part of his mythology? When I was five my parents were drunk at a party in Malibu and I fell into a hot tub with all my clothes on??? They didn't even notice??
Now that it is over, and the bump on his head is gone, and the Greek women have all kissed him and said good night and cooed over how cute he is, and he has a new super soft T from a Malibu clothing designer, it all seems good. Funny even.
They say a refrigerator is a window into a household's soul, and here is a snapshot of mine.
Art. Letters. Soccer schedules. Postcards. Important phone numbers. Mismatched magnets. Cousins. Inspiring quotes. And yes: this bumper sticker from Cafe Gratitude in Marin County.
More on that another time.
But at the cafe, after you have eaten your gourmet raw food meal you must have a real conversation with your waiter/waitress, about what you are grateful for. You can be ironic, smart-alecky or closed, but they are always open, and for one brief moment you bare your soul to a stranger.
I like the exercise. As you can see, I bought the bumper sticker.
I make the boys say what they are grateful for each night at dinner before we eat. Benji always goes first, and he goes on and on and on. He really is grateful for every little thing. He always ends with: And I am grateful for you and you and you. He breaks my heart every time.
Theo eats while Benji talks (we have had to put a time limit on him, because he really could go on for half an hour) and then says: I am grateful for my family, or something else quick and cliched. On special nights he is very grateful for one fantastic thing. And then he is heartfelt and sincere.
Jonathan always tries to get out of it (the cultivation of gratitude is something he appreciates, but somehow cannot quite get himself to dive into. He likes to be around it, but not to fully engage in it. When forced, he always says: My family. Or, My health.
He means it, but because he always says the same thing it loses some punch.
By the time it is my turn everyone is so hungry I barely have time to speak. And that is OK.
All of this is to say, we play the gratitude game, and I believe in cultivating gratitude. I know it is easier to be cynical and skeptical, and harder to appreciate. Corny, even. Such outpourings are definitely veering into the realm of the flaky, the hippy dippy and the slightly stoopid.
I grew up around a lot of negativity, so I like the exercise, even if it is just a window onto a possible different way of being.
But now, as part of my all around tune-up for my story (from meditating to diet to reframing how I think) I was actually given a prescription by an extremely intelligent doctor. Part of my homework, to reframe, in the style of cognitive therapy, is to keep a Gratitude Journal.
Now this concept has gained such credence among the New Age crowd I feel sort of over it before I have started. But my job now (since this is all part of my story) is to use myself as a guinea pig. I must suspend my disbelief and just do it and see what happens.
The gratitude journal idea comes from Robert Emmons, a reknowned positive psychologist, who teaches at UC Davis. On his web page is his picture: with him grinning so widely it looks fake or drug induced. But his studies, and the reason for his studies are fascinating. And the upshot is, medically speaking, cultivating gratitude can help heal you, and can likely prevent some disease.
(Indeed, my cultivate gratitude prescription was part of my "keep-your-body-cancer-unfriendly" action plan).
So I chose my journal, one with textured recycled paper and a pear on the front. I have only written in it for three days now. I cannot say my mindset has changed in any deep way.
But here is what is fascinating to me. The journal, where I simply list three things a day that I am grateful for, is teaching me so much about myself. It is separating out for me what I believe makes me happy, from what really makes me happy. It is breaking down my own mythology on some level, about who I am and what I want.
Ok, perhaps I am jumping the gun here. But here is an example. I am the kind of person who limps along with slightly broken things for too long. As long as it still works, I am OK. I do not go take care of it.
But in my three days I found that fixing things, or getting things fixed, is actually something that makes me very happy. Something that tops my day.
Maybe I need to pay more attention to that.
Also, writing these things down, only three, reminds me of how much joy my children really bring me. Every day. I mean, on some level, sure, I know that. But every day, something that one or both of them does, ranks as the highlight of my day. Top three.
In a world that does not place much value on motherhood, mothering, the value of mothering, just this simple listing of daily gratitude reminds me: whatever kids do for anyone else, my boys bring me joy every single day. Not in the abstract. Not in the "but of course they do" way, in a concrete, deep, ephemeral, "that-was-a-beautiful-moment" kinduva way.
That is a sweet, sweet lesson.
What about you. Have you ever kept a gratitude journal?
Did it feel frivolous? Interesting? Did it change you over time?
Did you read this book when you were young? Did you love it?
I was a fantasy child, and I read every Madeline L'Engle book I could get my hands on. When I think of my childhood, the images from her books, and the emotions, are among the most vivid for me.
At last Theo is reading real books, and I can pick great books, and he can read, or listen, and delight.
Sometimes he disappoints me, and I find it hard to not take it personally. He did not like the Narnia books, which I lived in, from age 8-11.
"I like them, Mommy," he said, trying not to hurt my feelings. "It's just that when I stop reading, I don't really want to go back and keep going."
But when I started reading him Madeline L'Engle, he was hooked. And so was I, all over again. In fact, I confess here, that the other night, after reading a chapte, it took all my self control to not continue reading on without him after I tucked him in.
I indulged my L'Engle mania by logging in and reading her biography, and her quotes, and everything I could find. In the end, think I just loved her spirit. I loved her obsession with God, with good and evil, with love, with science, with adventure. In her I find all the passions that drive me. I love that she chose to write these highly complex stories for children, because as one of her quotes said, If your subject matter is too difficult for adults, write for children instead.
With all the talk of tesseracts and time travel, I wondered if Theo would dig it. But he is as hooked as I am. And how I love him for it. What a wonderful thing when you finally hit a book that delighted you as a child, and you see it delighting your child. Did my L'Engle reading experiece leave a genetic imprint, passed on to him?
Madeline L'Engle would say it could. And she would find the science to back it up. Then put it in a book you could not put down.
Last week, stuffed into my son's communication folder, among the flotsam and jetsam of school life, was a paper advertising organic produce. Organized by SEE LA (Which I had never heard of) I could go on-line, set up an account, order organic veggies, and pick them up with my child every Wednesday in a green, recyclable bag. I am such a procrastinator, a-great-idea-I-will-do-it-later-for-sure, kinduva gal, but I was intrigued, so I set up my Paypal account and ordered. The next day, when I went to pick up my children (mentally brainstorming about what I was going to cook for dinner as I walked into school) Marguerita Mees, our glorious school chef, Edible Schoolyard leader and cooking teacher ran up to me with a bag of veggies, an armful of spinach bursting out of the top.
I was delighted! Inside I found all of what is pictured here, plus green beans, brown mushrooms, and an onion, which we used last night to make stir fry. Everything is fresh, in season, and delicious. Inside the bag I also found a list of recipes and ideas to cut up and use the vegetables I had--a Moroccan spinach and chickpea stew, and a persimmon and pomegranate seed salad--for example.
The bounty was so beautiful they inspired my young artist, Theo, who laid them out on the table and began a still-life (aerial perspective), pictured here.
The thing is, they were so beautiful you DID want to paint them. But my favorite thing is that it was so effortless, so affordable, so in-season, and so full of surprises. It is like a treasure. I couldn't wait to peek inside. I don't even have to go to the farmer's market. Now it is coming to me.
You can also order per person, a bag full of enough vegetable and fruit servings to satisfy the USDA recommended amounts for a family of four. Brilliant!
Are we the only school to have this service so far? I don't know, but I am determined to get them some publicity.
In the meantime, I am grateful for the new combos, the push to get out of my normal veggie rut, and the clever delivery system.
Hey, all you mamas out there. If you could pick up your groceries when you picked up your kids, would you do it?
As part of my healing journey to overcome my PTSD surrounding my friend's death from breast cancer, and in turn, that experience's effect on my own breast screenings, I am trying to meditate daily. (All for a story, TBA)
The biggest lesson so far, for me, is to calm my monkey mind, but also, to focus on the present, and not spin out all the "what-ifs" that constantly fill my mind--both good and bad. It is to tell myself each day, I did my best with the information I had. (Then I actually have to do my best.)
But for anyone who wants to meditate, who has had "try meditation" on their to-do list for, Oh, say, 10 years, but cannot quite make themselves sit down and do it, here is a fantastic list of simple, downloadable meditations.
They are so short there is no excuse. You do not even have to get up from your chair. Or exert effort. You just download, play, and a soothing voice (that of Diana Winston, who really was a Buddhist nun in Asia for awhile, but now helps teach medicine at the MARC center at UCLA) will guide you through the steps.
I hate bills. I hate paying them. I hate opening the envelopes. I hate writing checks. I hate it all.
I practice extreme avoidance and have probably payed enough money in overdue fees in my life to buy a small cottage on the water along the Central Coast of California.
My exceedingly conscientious husband with a five star credit rating has helped me. I am in charge of paying bills now, that is part of the marital duty division of labor. I can't screw up my family's credit rating and bankrupt us with overdue fees, even if I felt fine doing it to myself.
I am better. But I still hate it.
The pile of junk mail and bills grows in a pile by the door and I skirt it. I literally won't touch it, until I know that if I do not dive in we will be in trouble. I have tried to trick myself. I bought a very pretty tray to stack the ugly bills and make them less intimidating, even decorative. I have picked evenings I will do the bills. I promise myself I can watch some really trashy television after I complete them. Still, I just want to run.
Today was the day. I had moved this unpleasant task from one day to the next all week.
So I sat down, put on great uplifting music, filled my coffee cup with my favorite and best espresso, and began ripping and tearing and filing and paying.
It wasn't even that bad.
Now I am done, and Oh My Goodness Me I feel free.
To do is always better than to avoid.
I know this. But I must battle tens of generations of procrastinators in my genes to overcome my need, my desire, my compulsion to NOT DEAL.
But it is done. And now my desk is clean, my head is clear, and I am ready to be productive.
If only I could remember this feeling so I did not get mired in it every two weeks.
Any advice from my organized, motivated, clutterbusting friends? How can I break this dreadful cycle?
My husband is a delight in a social situation. He is keenly observant and takes it all in. He has on ongoing patter (whispered in my ear) that is so devastatingly on target that it makes me giggle wherever I am, and he takes away snippets of conversation that are better than the best gossip column.
When I was a reporter I would take him to events and set him free and he would come back with some of the best anecdotes of the evening.
Last night I went to an art show/cocktail party by one of my favorite friends. We know her art, we own her art, we will buy more of her art, but we were there to support, to love. I dragged my boys to this fashionable gathering, because it was the only way I could go. So there we were, squished into a tiny boutique on Melrose, me, and my two boys.
I stationed them at the counter with a brownie, told them not to knock over any mannequins, and set off to air kiss, meet and greet, and congratulate my friend.
Fifteen minutes later we were out the door. A platter had crashed to the floor near the expensive clothing on the way out, but it wasn't my well-behaved boys, it was a Dad! Bad Dad!
We walked out the door and I asked the boys what they thought. (They love the artist.)
"Well, there wasn't very much art for an art show," said Benji. "I thought there would be more art."
So Jonathan. Cutting to the chase. The truth in one devastating sentence.
"The woman who owned the store said she had never had so many people in her store in her whole life," said Theo.
The snoop and the truth-teller. My husband, divided in two, genetically spread out over my two boys.
I told Jonathan he doesn't even need to come any more. I have him beside me, in the form of Theo and Benji.
But of course, I do. I love the original.
And the little ones delight me as much as the Big One.
Last night as I lay down to go to sleep, Jonathan threw the latest Atlantic on the bed. On the cover?
A series of stories about those within various professions who dared to challenge the conventional wisdom. I should say as an aside that these people were not thinking small, but big. Still, I couldn't wait to read.
The first and lead Brave Thinker story was this one, about a medical researcher by the name of Ioannidas.
This Harvard trained Greek Doctor and researcher basically calls all of Western Medicine on their flawed medical studies. And he backs it up with statistics, where they went wrong, and why our medical journals and peer review medical system do not work, and keep other researchers from calling anyone on it. He concludes, with a lot of research that you can read in the article, that most of the medical studies published in major medical journals is flat out wrong. He also points out that many doctors are still operating on information published in those journals up to 12 years later.
And he is not just talking about disreputable studies. He is talking about gold standard medical trials, considered the Holy Grail of medicine, published in the premiere medical journals.
To read this story is both exhilarating and disturbing. And for everyone who really cares about their health, it will remind you again to listen and research and listen and advocate and question and yes, probably at some level, go with your own informed decision.
When I was in Japan working for the Los Angeles Times, I studied shiatsu on the weekend. I studied with a very ordinary old man on a top floor in a typically ugly Tokyo apartment building. No temple or New Age music, or incense or Buddhas in the corner. Each Saturday I would trek to some unknown station, march through the garish mini-mall, and ride up to my teacher's floor.
The class was simple. He showed me how to do the shiatsu on his wife. Then he had me lie down to feel what it felt like. Then he had me try it on him. Mixed in with it all were many powerful lessons--about bodies, minds, life.
At the end of my class he gave me my certificate. He told me I had great talent as a healer. I could intuit the problems, and bond with the patient. Few people could do that. But, he said, I was too vulnerable to their sadness, their illness, their misery. In effect, he said, I was too open. I let everything in--the good AND the bad. But the bad weakened me. To be successful I needed to build up my walls a little, so I could walk through the world and do what I needed to do. I needed to control what I let in, so I could still feel the problems, but not let it debilitate me.
That was my last class. But his words have stuck with me.
I know that one of my strengths as a writer is that I can intuit the feelings of people, sometimes better than they can themselves. I am empathetic to an unhealthy degree. But usually that benefits me.
But even when it is not shiatsu, the problems of the world seep into me. I read about Obama and his efforts, and the Republicans and their stubborness just to be jerks, and I feel hopeless. I read about LAUSD, and their resistance to change, at the price of the students, and I feel hopeless. I look at our economy, our environment, our city, and it all seems so messed up and tangled that I get very depressed.
I read all the newspaper on Sunday and that is how I felt. I almost took to bed.
But Jonathan, my relentlessly positive husband took me in his arms and talked to me.
He reminded me of this: Yes, perhaps the political system, the economic system, and the educational system are all F.U.B.A.R.. But I cannot dwell on that and let myself be immobilized by sorrow and depression and hopelessness, which I am prone to do. I must think small and pure. We could not change LAUSD, never, and to try to do it would have been foolish. The system must be blown up. But we could help start a charter school. And that charter school, through example, can inspire parents and challenge LAUSD, and make the intractable institutions stop and take a look. It is not changing the world, but it is making one perfect corner that gives hope to everyone who sees it, and changes the lives of those who are in it.
In the words of my shiatsu teacher, I cannot let all of that in. I must focus on what I can do, and do it.
I must see the problems of the big institutions, but I must let them be inspiration for change, not grist for immobilizing depression.
I must build my foundation so I am strong enough to not get knocked over by the bad news, so I can focus on making the small, beautiful, inspiring changes that make a difference.
I need to just start small, and beautiful, no compromises in the vision. That is all I can do.
And that is a lot.
I will look to: Alice Waters, my aunt and uncle who started the Ironman, Allison Cohen, who started a newspaper, Marya and Jay, who started our charter school, Deepak Chopra, who has changed the way we think about medicine, the woman who built OZ in the Hollywood Hills.
How about you? Is there someone doing something small, beautiful and perfect that inspires you?
I dove in. I committed. I paid my tuition and bought a pile of extraordinarily expensive books on Chinese Medicine (on half.com).
I went in with an open mind, ready to do it.
But after my second class I was not impressed. And my Hasidic Jewish Traditional Chinese Medicine teacher haunted my dreams. I got used to the constant Jewish allusions and the Hebrew to describe Chinese concepts. It no longer even rattled me.
What got to me was his direct claims, and constant insinuations about the powers of Chinese Medicine. You have to remember, I did not go in as a skeptic, but a believer. I know that TCM doctors have been fighting for recognition, to work in Integrative Medicine settings, and to overcome a bias, on the part of western doctors, to believe that most doctors of alternative medicine border on quacks and are sloppy with science.
I have fought with editors to take this profession seriously, and I have been impressed with acupuncture in treating nausea during pregnancy, mood swings do to my menstrual cycle, and pain in my knee, which a western doctor said would never ever improve.
But over the course of two classes our teacher either insinuated or claimed that 1) he had helped cure a young man's homosexuality by giving him more yang (his voice dropped, he started to like sports, he was less effeminate) 2) he helped a woman with cancer, with his help it was in remission, when her orthodox jewish husband forbade him to continue his treatments because the treatments were too intimate, three months later the woman died and 3) he treated a mongoloid child and after many treatments the child no longer appeared mongoloid. This is because acupuncture and TCM can change DNA. When pressed on the topic by some of the biochemists and medical school bound students in the class he backed off and it became clear he did not understand the difference between a gene and DNA.
He thanked us for challenging him. But the alarming thing was to hear him make these sloppy claims which stick in your mind, without a real understanding of what he was saying.
So I am withdrawing. Mostly because the time and the distance made the class much more complicated for my family than I anticipated. But if my teacher had been more rigorous and less sloppy I think I would have muscled through.
It is so hard for me to quit, so terribly terribly hard. But I hold in my heart that the reason I was taking this course was to explore the idea of becoming an Alternative Medicine Doc. This class will be required if I formally enter any program. But what I now know is that I need to do much more investigation of any school I might enroll in, of their classes, their professors, and the scientific/medical rigor of their program.
That would serve me better than sitting in on a class.
I loved the material. But I could not get past the rest of it.
For now, I'm done.
Perhaps I will sign up again with a different teacher for a class during the day.
For four years I have focused on my children, my husband, my home. My life has had tight parameters, and while I was busy, sometimes overwhelmed, I was also completely independent. Mostly, my life was quiet, my stage small.
Now I am getting back out there. I am taking a class, meeting with people I want to hire me, doing work that is new, not natural to me, and a total challenge, trying to convince people they should pay me to write for them, and doing all the research that leads up to that, and reporting on a story that I care deeply about and requires me to get emotionally involved to be a success. All at once.
As a result my brain is on fire. Part of this is great. It feels wonderful to be jumping in, getting out there, remembering what I can do. But partially I feel overstimulated. My neurons are firing so fast I can barely keep up. This is fun. But I lay my head down at night and my synapses are still firing so fast and furious I can't get them to stop. I am tired, but I cannot turn off my brain. I lay in bed until midnight or beyond unable to calm myself.
Not even exercise or meditation can slow down my racing mind.
After such a quiet life it is like being on speed. I like it, but I can see I also need to get my brain accustomed to a certain level of stress, excitement, new information.
I love being a mother. I believe being a mother brings unbelievable power and skill to whatever you do afterward. I do not believe your brain atrophies as a mother. I do, however, believe that you get used to a quiet life. Revving myself back up the speed of 21st century life is hard.
I know that in a couple of weeks my emotions will calm down. But for now, what a strange sensation this is. Welcome, yes. But also intense.
If any of you working mothers out there have any brilliant advice (particularly those of you who have stopped working for awhile completely, then dived back in) please please please pass it along.
I have christened this six month period the Age of Exploration. So as I continue to freelance I am delving into other areas, like the dilettante I am. Last week I signed up for a class at Emperor's College in Santa Monica: Fundamentals of Oriental Medicine. In this four unit class I will learn the basic tenets of TCM.
So nervously I drove to my class last week and wondered if I was insane. The class was packed, with everyone from recent grads to middle aged people reinventing themselves.
We sat in the class anxiously waiting for our teacher arrrive. Finally he did, and what a shock. Our Chinese Medicine teacher was a Hasidic Jew, dressed in tallis and vest and hat and sporting a huge bushy beard that obscured his lips. I wondered if I was in the wrong place. I was so confused.
But I went with it. This is L.A.--a giant mash-up of cultures. Why shouldn't a devout Hasidic Jew teach Chinese Medicine? He was warm and enthusiastic and told us his religious beliefs would NOT bleed into his teaching, or influence it. Good to hear.
I scanned the materials. There was as much Hebrew as Chinese, but again, I thought, I am cool with this.
He made us all introduce ourselves and say why we were there. The stories were amazing. There was a female pilot, a former military intelligence officer, a middle school teacher, a German corporate type who had moved to Santa Monica to begin again, a dancer, an athlete, a former social worker from Virginia. There was a doctor, a chiropractor, and a lot of women of Asian descent who had grown up around Chinese Medicine--either loving it or hating it.
Scattered through the class were horror stories--tales of western medicine going awry. I wondered if doctors ever see these patients whose lives they ruin. The ones they subscribe a medication to, or do an operation wrong on? Are those people ever followed in statistics? Interviewed? Or are they simply invisible? I was suprised.
Our Hasidic teacher proceeded to teach. I have been blessed with the most extraordinary teachers in my life. I never thought about it, I guess, but every graduate program I have attended the professors were inspiring and top notch. Even the bad ones were good. Our teacher was fine. He was warm and enthusiastic and threw out long strings of New Age platitudes--something I normally devour--but it was a lot to take. I can get this in the Self Help aisles. I was here to learn facts! He did some hands on demonstrations, which I liked. He is open. a good man.
He read aloud to us his ten principals of Traditional Jewish Medicine, and told us how Yin and Yang corresponded with many tenets of Kabbalah. He finished the night with a tale of a patient--a 23 year old "boy" who came to him for help. The boy said he was also receiving counseling. What for, our Hasidic teacher and doctor asked him. (The patient was Hasidic, too). The boy had homosexual tendencies. Our Hasidic teacher said that when he did his diagnosis it turned out the boy had a "yang" deficiency, yang being action, male, sun, power. He gave him a little yang (in the form of herbs and treatments) and he said he heard the boys voice drop from effeminate to masculine. The boy said he had more energy. He felt it surging through his body. When he talked to him a week later, the boy, who had always loved art, now expressed an interest in sports.
He left the story hanging there--with the suggestion that TCM offered a possible "cure" for homosexuality.
The class could not speak. We did not even know how to respond. The middle school teacher finally choked out that he found the story offensive, and his attitude very similar to fundamental christians. The teacher backed off, said he loved homosexuals, respected them, whatever. This is just what he saw.
The class ended and I stumbled out into the rainy night.
I have a week to decide what I want to do. I want to learn about the Fundamentals of Chinese Medicine, but I am wary of an institution that puts someone with such strong religious beliefs in charge of an important intro. class. More importantly, I am trying to decide if I can overcome my feelings about the low level prosletyzing in my class to get to the meat of the material. I can read. I will learn the material.
I make no secret of it here. I am on the path to re-invention--trying to figure out what I will do next. How I will contribute to the world, and also to the financial security of my family.
So as I was winding up that gorgeous mountain road, described in previous blog post, an incredibly powerful feeling came over me. Strong, like a visitation, or a message. I am not trying to scare my non spiritual readers here. I am sure my life is so busy that any deeper thought I have simply has no time or space to bubble to the surface. Here, on this mountain road alone, I relaxed, and up it bubbled.
I should back up and say that I had lowered my standards. I actually sent out an inquiry to a health trade magazine for a job I felt grossly overqualified for. I wondered if I could stomach the bias that would come with promoting products I did not believe in, but told myself we need money, I had to try. No response, so I was spared deep thought on the subject.
But as I spun up this mountain road listening to Michael Franti and friends, who I can only describe as a musician who does positive, socially active rock. Corny sounding, but also refreshing. Hard to explain. It was Nat who had introduced me to this guy. And he has grown on me.
And suddenly I felt with conviction: I am so lucky to be alive. My friend wanted to be alive. She would have killed to have the difficult decisions I am facing now. Killed! And she would have insisted on trying to do something worthwhile in the world. Her standards were so high they may have helped kill her. But I loved her for it. I loved that she could not buy a roll of toilet paper without knowing whether it was the most environmentally gentle toilet paper around. I focus on cost and whether the toilet paper will clog up our old pipes.
I had been agonizing about which route to go: pure money, or bigger, harder, more rewarding, and definitely a job that contributes SOMEHOW in a positive way to the world--and I can see that every day. Clearly. In my work. No rationalizations necessary to convince myself of that.
And I was clear. I must stick to my ideals. This does not mean that commerce cannot enter into the plan. But I must set my sights high and aim to do good--however that turns out. It means I may not be a cog in a corporation with questionable motives. It means it is time to strike out and do my best.
Sorry to be so secretive--can't reveal more here, now. But the effect was powerful.
And two days later, when I descended into the 113 degree heat in Los Angeles, I knew I was on a path. No guarantees of success, or wild financial windfalls (tho they ARE possible) but I know the direction I need to go. For now.
Do you remember your dreams when you were in college of what adulthood would be? Do you remember the things you thought would make you happy?
I remember. I remember sitting in Harvard Square eating a chocolate croissant and sipping coffee and reading the New York Times, and feeling so extravagant and grown up, and thinking, if I could have this, just this, every day, I would be happy.
Then, I remember how I loved hiking with some of my best friends: Natalie, Athena, Jill. We hiked all over California. We backpacked and got lost and had grand and crazy adventures. I did not live here then, nor had I ever gotten to see National Parks. Those trips made me insanely happy. And then, I thought, if I can always return to these beautiful places with people I love, I will be happy. If I can sing and tramp along a trail and talk about life, that would be enough.
But life goes on, and it starts to get confusing.
Well, this past weekend, I was in Idyllwild. Due to circumstances too mundane to go into here, I was driving up alone. I sat through traffic and incredible heat, but finally I was off the 60 and driving across huge plains and up into the mountains. I had the windows rolled down and the hot, piney wind was ripping through my car. I was driving fast and listening to the Michael Franti station on Pandora, and every curve brought a new spectacular view of mountains that look like the Sierras but are only two hours from L.A.. My heart was soaring. And I remember that period, when I said, if one day I can have a car, with a great stereo system, and I can roll down the windows and listen to my favorite music and sing along at the top of my lungs, then I will be happy.
And you know what was weird. I am 43 years old, life is so much more complicated, but those moments climbing the mountains listening to that great music, knowing that the next day I would take my water bottle and hike up to the highest peak and see forever, I was happy. I was so extraordinarily happy.
And I wondered: Did we know better, more clearly, what made us happy when we were 20 than we do now? Do our dreams and our happiness barometers get scrambled by life in the city, worries about bills, status, our shifting notions of success, our kids? I always think "No." I know myself and I am true to that.
But driving along, feeling the purest joy, I thought, I have forgotten. I have forgotten that of course I care about meaningful work, and a nice house, and social activisim and the rest of my grown up life. But beyond all of that, those simple pleasures of life that thrilled me when I was 21 still do make my heart sing. I still love an espresso, a perfect chocolate croissant and a few great newspaper articles for breakfast. I still love the parks and feel like the wild places in California never, ever let me down. I love these parks and mountains like John Muir. They inspire me and leave me in awe. And I still love that feeling of freedom that comes from blowing down a highway on a hot day with the windows rolled down, blasting your favorite tunes, singing at the top of your lungs, and breathing in the mountain air.
This is breakfast by candelight. Yesterday was the third brutally hot day and for the second night in the row the electricity blew. We woke up to no clocks, no computers, no phone, no light (hence this breakfast photo) no air conditioning, and no way to get Jonathan's car out of the garage.
The quiet was nice. The heat was oppressive. But the boys loved the breakfast. And it was a reminder that the world itself provides drama and excitement. We are so insulated from the natural world at this point it barely penetrates our consciousness in anything but the most extreme circumstances. But it is unforgettable. Fun. An adventure. And it teaches you respect for the world, for nature, and for its power. We are not invincible. We cannot control everything.
I was not imagining things. Yesterday was the hottest day EVER recorded in Los Angeles. It was so hot in downtown Los Angeles that the thermometer broke when it hit 113 degrees. They sent a technician from the National Weather Service in Oxnard to fix it but the hottest minutes had passed.
I happened to be driving through downtown at 12:15, when the official thermometer melted down. My car thermometer, a Volvo thermometer of uncanny accuracy, read 114 degrees under the underpass. Later that afternoon I drove by a bank by the Grove at Fairfax and Third. It read 116 degrees.
Today is cooler but still awful. When Theo stepped out the front door at 7:15 a.m. he said: "It feels like a warm bathtub."
It is 114 degrees in Hollywood. I am melting. I am insane. This might be the apocalypse. It is so hot that when I drive in my car with the air-conditioning on full blast I can feel the heat radiating through the side of the car. Don't let me near a knife or a gun. I feel crazy.
My father didn't die and my brother kicked my ass. I swam sans wetsuit and my shoulder didn't give out. Here we are after the race.
This is my amazing family, post-race.
Just looking at this picture makes me proud. I come from some extreme sports stock. There are my Aunt Judy and Uncle John, co-founders of the Iron Man triathlon. They have had crazy adventures that inspired me from afar for as long as I can remember. They were always swimming and biking and coming up with crazy challenges. They rode bikes up into the Sierras with their kids when their kids were still little, eating salami and soda. They rode cross country on motorcycles when I was in high school, and my uncle gave me a ride on the back of his bike that thrilled me, until my father yelled at him to never, ever do that again. That only whet my appetite more. Then they bought a sailboat and sailed off into the sunset on grand adventures. I have lost track. I think they sailed to Scotland. Then they started from Coronado on a quest to sail round the world. They only made it as far as Panama, where they still live half the year, but the adventures they had! They knew people held up by pirates and hung out with indigenous tribes. They were just so cool!
My cousins Kristin and Michael are supersonic athletes who are do not even train, They just do triathlons when they feel the inclination, do marathons at the drop of a hat, drive around the country in vans on 17 hour treks and take it all in stride. My cousin Kristin was one of the first women to go to the Naval Academy, learned to fly a helicopter, and even now, when she learns to scuba dive, does not just learn to go down and look at coral--she gets wreck certified!!!
Then I had other cousins I never saw when I was growing up. They are the Santa Cruz cousins. Older, the children of my father's half-brother Michael, we never knew them when we were growing up. I didn't meet most of them until I was 30. They are another variation on the extreme sports DNA. The cousins all surf. All the time. One of their children did tow-in surfing in Hawaii, until he got bored. He's over it now.
Those cousins swam Alcatraz so fast we never even saw them. They don't even think of themselves as competitive swimmers. They are just fast and strong and used to cold water--like seals.
We all did it. My cousins Ian MacGregor and Mike Wells were across the Bay in no time. My brother flew in, fast and in skin. My cousin finished with me. My father swam with a wetsuit, didn't get hypothermia, and his hands and ankles were only bright red for a few hours after the race. My cousin Kristin swam with her parents and carried a camera around her waist to shoot pictures in the water during the swim. And my aunt and uncle swam together the whole way, walking out of the water together, holding hands as they crossed the finish line. How romantic! In an extreme way!
That night we gathered for dinner in Santa Cruz and ate lasagna. It was all of us who swam, and everyone else, too. Twenty two MacGregors under one roof. I wondered what it was like for my sons to see the genetic strands unfurling in that room. They saw every variation of MacGregor face and nose and chin. They saw red hair and freckles and a lot of tall people. They saw that the Celtic blood lives on, with people singing and playing instruments in every direction.
But most of all they saw crazy extreme sports people, whose idea of a good time is to get together and escape from Alcatraz.
I am jealous. I would have loved to have met so much family.
But I love watching the effect.
Already Theo, 7, has a goal.
"I will swim from Alcatraz when I am 11," he said. "In a wetsuit."
So when I got to San Francisco, when I stuck my little pinkie toe in the water, it was cold.
About 60 degrees cold. Or less.
But my brother and I had already swum in 60 degree water. In Santa Monica.
And my brother is hard-core.
So the next morning, when we drove down to the South End Rowing Club, for the actual Alcatraz swim, he said, "You want to swim without wetsuits?"
The seed was planted, the dare was dared.
Then my cousin Michael said he remembered a certain journalist who had written a story last year about her Alcatraz swim, swearing that if she did it again she was going "skin."
But you see, I never expected to DO Alcatraz again.
My cousin Kristin needed a wetsuit, because she is sleek and fast and she was going to swim with her parents, and if she swam their speed she would chill. (She is an amazing swimmer who inspiired me to swim when I was little, and went to the Olympic Trials in butterfly. I wanted to be her when I was little. I would part my hair like her and beg her mother to convince my mother to let me be on a swim team, the Sub Base Barracudas. It worked.)
That felt like a sign. So I offered my wetsuit, which was really her own mother's Ironman wetsuit. In the end she wore a different wet suit, but by then I had sworn off the wetsuit and Michael and Ian and I had made a pact: We were going skin.
It was insane. And colder than 60 degrees. More like 58. Which, when you are that cold, and in the water for 41 minutes, makes a difference.
It was so cold that when I got out of the water my tongue was numb on the right hand side, from breathing on the left, and my tongue hitting the water. I am not kidding!!!
I got another notch on my stick, tho, even if it wasn't as fun as doing it with a wetsuit.
So I guess I do feel pretty cool.
Even if all I can really remember about the race is that it was really, really cold. And I just wanted it to end.
Here I am.
Notice everyone else in wetsuits.
I am the crazy one.
(My wetsuit-less little brother finished before me, in a whopping 38 minutes, and my wetsuitless cousin came in right beside me, not pictured here.)
OK. Confession. My husband read the last post and was hurt. He really meant it. He DID like my dinner. He was not being fake. He liked the salmon, the squash and the kale. His cool tools put-up came from the heart.
Which brings me to one more point. It is important to give compliments both to learn to give them, but also to teach others to believe them, and to accept graciously.
Compliments, true compliments with no undercurrent of meanness or no hidden insult, were so rare in my family growing up that when you heard them you believed you had misheard. Or you replayed them over and over to find where the mean comment was hidden. No compliment was ever just a compliment.
As a result I am wary of compliments. I can barely hear them, can rarely feel them, and, truth be told, they make me uncomfortable--even though I crave them like a hunk of Tcho dark chocolate.
So maybe if I had worked with the cool tools as a kindergartener I would be familiar with both giving and receiving compliments and not trash my poor husband on my blog.
I wrote about this system of emotional learning when Theo started school and now Benji is learning it, too. This is the second time around, but I am still bowled over by its power, and relevance for older people, like me.
In this system kids learn about put-ups and put-downs. (Compliments and insults) They learn that it takes about five compliments to undo one well-aimed insult. (Because we all know the insults stay with you longer.) They learn that it is not just words that load what you say with emotion, but also HOW you say those words. What is the emotion behind the words. Is it HOT and RED? (fiery and angry) or cool and blue (calm and less emotional).
Seriously, I think every adult could benefit from a week of working with the cool tools. They could introduce this system to employers, CEOs, husbands, wives, therapists and teachers. The system could change the world.
But here is the funny thing. Yesterday we were reviewing how it works with Benji over dinner. Jonathan said, "What is an example of a put-up, Benji?" Benji couldn't think of one. Jonathan tried to give me one. "Wow, this is a really good dinner, Hilary." Even in the moment it sounded fake. Artificial. Obsequious.
Then Benji chimed in. "A put-down is, 'Stupidhead.'" Jonathan encouraged him to do a put-up again. But Benji was on a roll with the put-downs. "Mad-crazy!" "Dumb!" he shouted out. He would have kept going.
A few hours later I was sitting in a tiny chair for back to school night as his teacher explained the system.
"I decided not to reinforce the put-downs so I did not write any of those down," she said with a smile. Too late. They are locked in my son's brain. He loves his new vocabulary of put-downs. As for his put-ups, I still have not heard one come out of his mouth.
Isn't it funny what our brains hold onto? Is it just human nature? Is it so hard to compliment? Does it just feel dull and fake? Do insults just feel sharper, smarter and more creative? Or do the real compliments always go hand in hand with jealousy, making them so hard to say? Or is that just what we are afraid will happen-that they will be perceived that way? It is always hardest to compliment those we know well who are most like us. Those are already established greats, no problem. those who are safely below us, easy to give a kind word to. But what about those who need it most, just our friends and those we see every day, who need a lift or a kind word from those who know them best.
It made me wonder.
But to all of my readers, I just wanted to say: You rock! You really do!
Some people make me feel good every time I see them. They are just good spirits. I feel uplifted, and better after an interaction. It is not that they are always chipper, or upbeat. Often they are people with a streak of sadness in them.
Other people always leave me with an aftertaste a little bad. I want to like them. I cannot analyze WHY they do not make me feel good, why I walk away feeling a little down, or off. It is just true.
Because I am me, I always spend too much time trying to figure it out.
Some of it is just how people are--are they present? do they listen? do they have some larger ulterior motive for being your friend (or not) and I am feeling that in a given moment?
Some of it may be deep rooted compatibility.
But more and more I find myself sorting on some deep level: who will come through? who will not? who would stand by me? who would not? who is genuine? who is not?
I am trying to let that deep intuition guide more of who I spend my time with. I am trying to not overlook the quiet, steady, loyal people who make my life rich.
Two years ago my older son Theo suddenly became annoying. He was still his sweet self, but he was just experimenting. He would just kick my seat when I was driving, torture his brother when I wasn't looking, and whatever else he could think of. I was sad. I thought, "Oh, No. I love him. But genetically he has a little strand of DNA that delights in irritating people. I will work it out of him like a master, but I regret this, and I have a lot of work to do."
And I did. And now he is a sweet boy, who helps his brother, helps me, volunteers to carry groceries up the stairs, is friendly to younger children and polite to adults. I am not saying this is fail-proof, but by and large he is a great boy, and the annoying qualities have disappeared.
Two years later it is my second son, my sweet Benji, who is suddenly insanely annoying. At 5 he is now the one kicking my seat, torturing Theo when I am not looking, refusing to obey me, and doing whatever else he can think of to annoy everyone in sight--man, woman, child, dog.
Which brought Jonathan and I to ask a question: Is being annoying an actual developmental stage?
Perhaps it is a way of asserting self. I am here. I can annoy you. I can do something that makes everyone notice me. Even bigger people and more powerful people.
Or, Jonatathan suggested, perhaps it is a stage of mental growth that precedes reading, when your brain is so ripe and ready to go and you know that there is this ocean of knowledge out there all around you filled with floating letters, but you cannot understand it yet, and everyone you know can. Perhaps this desire to be irritating is just his frustration that he is the only one in the family that cannot dive into books and newspapers and cereal boxes and know what it going on.
He keeps asking, "When will I know how to read, Mommy? Will I learn this week?"
I should spend more time with him. He read a book in day last spring, but then forgot how because I let it go.
Anyway, this also makes me think on a larger scale: Are annoying adults just children who got stuck at some developmental stage ready to learn something new, but they didn't/couldn't and they were just frozen in some place, irritating and annoying????
What do you think?
Any Child Development people out there willing to weigh in?
It was terrifying, exhilarating, and WOW did it stir up a lot of weird issues for me.
I arrived clutching my papers in my hand--unsure if I would read or drop the papers and talk. I had scrawled BREATHE across the top, just as my actor/writer friend Lee had advised, and worked out really really hard, too, so I would have no energy leftover to be nervous.
But there is always more energy to be nervous--secret reserves hidden away. I walked away and immediately I was terrified. The other performers/readers were world class improv people who had trained at Second City, or had their own show at Bang on other nights, or were just hilarious as soon as you saw them--you know the types, riveting, hilarious faces with deep voices and big noses. The kind of people you know are going to make you laugh before they open their mouth, and then they do, and every single thing that comes out, even in conversation, is the funniest thing you have heard in a year.
I drank a coke, kept breathing, and madly texted Jonathan for words of comfort.
Aliza (who directed the show) walked out in a super cool saunter to the chords of "Bad to the Bone."
I should add that my anxiety levels were so high in the afternoon that I thought I might faint or destroy my marriage.
Performing, and I guess, telling a true story that is slightly shameful, on stage brought up huge issues for me. It was one of the most powerful therapeutic experiences I have done. Telling those stories on stage in that way got right to the core of what is holding me up in life.
By an hour before the show Jonathan was looking deep in my eyes and saying, "THIS is why you cannot write your novel. You feel too guilty to tell your story. You are still scared. This is really really important."
And it was.
I came out and there was a row of my wonderful friends--all actors at one time or another, mostly writers, and to a person thoughtful, sensitive, creative and wise. I saw their faces and I knew I would be OK.
When people laughed I was so thrown I didn't know what to do.
But I did it. And my fellow performers blew my mind with their honesty, hilarity and talent.
The show packed a punch in terms of emotional power. Truth-telling is always compelling.
Meanwhile, over on Wilshire Blvd., the sixth and seventh grade students from Larchmont (the original Larchmont, to whom we owe our existence) are staking out a new site for their junior high school.
Larchmont has taken over the top two floors of an old Episcopalian school that stands in the shadow of the controversial, astronomically expensive, shiny, new $578 million Robert Kennedy High School.
The building is church gothic and feels like a tired, classic school in New York City.
The gym is on the top floor, and there is more space on the roof.
The rooms are cool, with old fireplaces at each end, and rippled, 1920's panes in the leaded windows, but also old.
A week before class was about to start at a Board Meeting last week the school looked woefully unprepared. We heard parents had been painting madly for a week but it was hard to tell.
It was a reminder that no matter how much the LCW parents gripe, or feel, at moments, forgotten or overlooked by Larchmont and its Board, we are deeply indebted to that school and its founding parents. They are always, always the pioneers. They started the original school at St. Ambrose, and took that risk. They staked out the property at Hollygrove, and transformed it, making one set of second graders learn all alone one year to hold that space. And now they are sending their kids to the heart of Koreatown for a new experiment--a Larchmont Charter Junior High School.
They have hired a cool new guy who looks like Juno Diaz and came from a charter school in South LA. He is young, cool and Latino.
Some parents are bailing and sending their kids to private school or magnet schools or the local public schools. It is just too much of a chance. As the kids get older the academic stakes are higher. They will need to pull in more kids from other schools which will mean a bumpy period of integration as kids educated under different philosophies meld.
I wondered what I would do if Theo were in seventh grade. Would I send him?
I want to say yes, but I don't know.
The place is a thrill for sixth and seventh graders. It is highly urban and you can ride a bus or subway to school. It feels like an adventure. Kids like feeling like pioneers. It is us old fogies who crave a guarantee.
Anyway, I am taking a moment to thank all those Larchmont parents who are the trailblazers in this crazy start up school experiment, willing to submit their kids to a new school they hope will work. Failure is not an option.
After three years of moving, all the students are on one campus, and the campus is ALL ours. We don't share with Larchmont Charter, and we don't share with Rosewood. We don't have to tiptoe around and make other principals happy and pretend it is not a big deal. And all of our students can be on one campus--with noone squeezed into a divided classroom.
We can paint the way we want to, set up our library the way we want to, and grow our garden the way we want to. Our school now starts at conventional hours and we make our own rules.
I always felt blessed to be at LCW, but what a huge difference it makes to have a place of your own.
Psychologically it feels like now Kristin (our amazing principle) can settle in and really hone the vision, work on the education, think only about the students.
Of course this is just an illusion.
At this moment our current campus is at capacity. We fit K through 3. Next year, when we add the new kindergarten we will be K through 4, and then what?
But here is the most fascinating thing. In three years the school has gone from being a pioneering experiment that drew parents willing to take a wild chance on a start-up, to an established and desirable school with hundreds of people in the lottery praying they will get in. The teachers are set, the curriculum is set, some test scores are in (yes! the constructivist education currriculum with an eye to academics and an acceptance of state testing is really working! wow!).
And already the vibe of the school is shifting from the homesteader/pioneer mindset to the safer, I just want a good school for my kid, mindset. Both are important. And it is good to have a rest. It is exhilarating, but also tiring, to always be a pioneer.
Besides, come January, the crazy scramble for site will begin again.
I think I am the last woman in Los Angeles to find out about this place, but if you haven't gone, GO!
This is a real honest-to-goodness Korean spa (no natural hot springs, alas) on Olympic Blvd., run by a huge tribe of Korean women dressed in green robes and conservative black underwear.
For $15 you can go in and soak and steam and roast and lie wrapped in big institutional quilts on a radiant heat floor for as long as you want to hide from the world. On my first visit I stayed for three hours.
My friend Jill Tanner took me and I was already happy as I cruised down a new neighborhood on Olympic--in Koreatown--in search of urban adventure. That is the glorious thing about L.A..--you just never know what you are going to find.
And there, under an ugly looking sign, is a non-descript building that houses the spa. In back there is free valet parking. You get a towel, a robe, a little towel, and I bought a little scrubby wash cloth to scrape all the dead skin off.
The place is not pretty. It is functional and very Asian, with attempts at luxury, like a lot of marble and ugly faux leather couches.
But that does not matter. It is the Japanese bath house, brought to L.A.. There is a hot tub, a even hotter tub of mugwort (which promises to improve your menstrual cycle, give you energy, boost your immune sysem, make you smarter, and make you rich.) You can steep in there like a human tea bag, and feel the stress seeping out of your body. I swear. There is a cold tub, too. But not that cold--the temperature hovers around that of the ocean in June.
Then there are the hot rooms: the steam room, the sauna, and best of all a Korean hot room, with black volcanic rock stuck into the ceiling, stone walls, and mats made of circles of bamboo on the floor. You rest your head on a wooden pillow and zone out. It sounds austere, but the effect is fabulous.
Between soaks and steams you can lie on the big hot floor in a quilt, or drink barley tea, or get one of the myriad treatments in the warren of rooms upstairs. If you get hungry you can go into the kitchen and eat semi-naked in your green robe--a fabulous Korean meal made by women dressed just like you. Then you can go and detox all the kimchee right back out of your system.
You can also get your skin scraped and treated on big tables in a communal area by the pools, where other women walk by and watch as you are scrubbed like a new born baby.
Jill and I got the reflexology foot massage. Just do it. That is all I can say.
I love Beverly Hot Springs--also in Koreatown--with a real hot spring. But the rules there are so strict it is almost no fun. Here, too, there are signs saying stay quiet, don't jump in pools, etc., but you can talk to your friend and move around without feeling like you will be escorted out if you break a rule.
I am sorry gentleman, this place is only for women, and somehow that makes it better.
Jill said the Capital Spa down the street offers all the same services for men, plus an urban driving range.
But if you are feeling down, out, up, down, or just want to curl up naked in a big flesh-colored quilt and read a book in a place where no one can find you, GO!!! This can be your three hour trip to Seoul, and you can be home for dinner.
Warning: To my favorite readers under 10--this material may be inappropriate. But I will have a post soon JUST for YOU!
When I quit my job (almost) four years ago, I made a choice: I was leaving full employ to devote myself to my kids. So much has happened. And I have achieved so much that matters to no one but me. I have gained invaluable perspective, confidence, and I have stretched myself in ways that have no price.
In three days Benji will enter kindergarten and I will have two children in school. I know, I know--most people have their children in what amounts to full time school from the time they are three. But we chose our co-op with its limited hours and we have lived with old school (til noon) preschool hours til now. So this is a HUGE change.
I will have hours free every day to myself. I will begin (I hope) to begin to contribute to household income again. I will be able to go grocery shopping without children surfing the aisles and hanging off the cart. I will be able to do multiple errands at high speed not worrying of there will be tantrums in the aisles, falling mannequins as children play hide and seek in the women's dept., or that someone will fall asleep before we get to where we are going. I will be able to have uninterrupted thoughts!
I have spent more time with my children than anyone I know. (This is not said with an air virtuousity!) We cut out all child care for financial reasons. People with less money would have their kids in child care so they could work, people with more would have a nanny. I am in the middle, opting for some old fashioned model--one, that I might add, did not lead to happiness for my mother or Jonathan's.
I think it paid off. At this exact moment in time I love how my boys have turned out. But no resting on laurels--I may be cursing the Gods and rushing to therapy next week to talk about failures in mothering. Kids never freeze. Your job is never done.
But here I am--really on the cusp of massive change--no matter how tectonic it may be--and I am wondering if I am going to make it the last three days.
My patience is wearing thin. I am yelling at my boys more than I have in a long time. I am tired of bickering, dangerous sword fights and always saying "Careful" and "No." That is a huge part of being a mama in the city, and I don't really dig it.
I am constantly shepherding people--like a big, drooling good-natured sheepdog. And like a sheepdog--if I am not well exercised or mentally challenged I start to get a little crazy and neurotic.
I will add that I drank a little too much red wine last night to celebrate the end of a perfect summer in our little green outdoor dining room. So I am paying this morning with the darkness that comes with too much drink.
But man, I pray I do not kill a child before Tuesday.
I need a break from them, and they need a break from me. I love them, but I need a little space. I need to rejuvenate. I need to take care of myself.
So now, with three days left (this is like the last mile of the marathon) the end is in sight, and I seriously wonder if I am going to make it. My mind and will are giving out early and I am in trouble!
Does this ever happen to you?
All you mama readers, do you have any wise words for me?
In my last blog I wrote ..."our nation is fucked."
The words were so strong, and so unlike me, that my husband called to inquire.
He never limits me. His only request is that I not write about our sex life--which would be so fun!
But otherwise he is resigned, and even encouraging. "Write what you want. Sometimes it takes my breath away, but I married a writer. It's OK."
That is why I love him.
But that last little phrase threw him.
"Do you really think that?" he asked.
It was lazy writing. Using profanity to express strong emotion is so lame. I do not condone it, and I do not do it. If you are going to choose to do it, usage should be careful, and carefully considered.
Still, I will not retract it here.
It is not that I feel no hope. Obama gives me hope. Our little school gives me hope. My boys give me hope.
But, as a country, I feel dark. I feel that we have become so fat, happy, ignorant and passive, we simply do not move, even when things are really really bad. I am not letting myself off the hook here. I am just as much to blame. I am not running for office. I am not contributing greatness.
My feelings of foreboding stem from a series of disasters which we Americans simply cannot stand up to. Our financial system is rotten, still we cannot reform. Our health care system is untenable, still we do not reform it, and the small reforms that were passed are being chipped away at by corporations. We are polluting our seas and forests and world, but even when BP destroys the Gulf, probably for years to come in ways we cannot understand, we cannot muster the political will to put a stop to deep oil drilling, or even try to drive smaller cars, or drive less, or think about what is pushing this insane technology beyond its limits.
Our economy is flailing, and no one knows what to do.
The fact that our government is gridlocked, evil corporations rule the world, and our environment is under extreme stress make me blue. Throw in that when I walk through my supermarket I literally can be poisoned by many of the items on the shelves--from medicines, to pesticides, to eggs, to simply over-processed bad food with healthy labels, to fish that live in our oceans are thus are too full of toxins to eat frequently, I feel discouraged.
I am darker than my husband.
But on one point I do agree. I do agree that there are pockets of hope, and that the change will burble up from below in tiny small acts by brave figures who are not performing solely to make as much money as they possibly can. I am inspired by our school, and by a gardener I heard of who knocks on doors, begs to plant a garden in the front yard, gives the family within all the veggie bounty they can use, and donates the rest to homeless people. I am inspired by Alice Waters, who is trying to change the way children eat. I am inspired by a guy in our neighborhood who took a scrappy piece of dirt by the side of the road and planted flowers at his own expense. Now the strip is purple and white and gorgeous with blossoms. I am inspired by Jay and Marya of Retrospecs who donate all the eyeglasses they cannot refurbish to sell at their high end store to places in Africa. I am inspired by Allison Cohen who started two community newspapers in an age where people say newspapers cannot make money, and is contributing to her community, and her pocketbook. I am inspired by teachers who labor on in LAUSD without any recognition at all, just trying to make their students have better lives. I am inspired by guerilla gardeners and visionaries and lovers of children. I am inspired by all people who create beauty--whether on canvasses, in their community, with their children, or in their kitchens.
And I believe that eventually, in a long, long time, all these little spots of hope will join together and form something new.
But I do think it will take awhile.
And in the meantime I am often depressed about how mean-spirited Americans have become, how little they care about children who are not their own, poor people they do not know, or libraries whose books they do not read.
We took the summer off and did not volunteer an hour at LCW.
So last Saturday when I drove to the St. Ambrose campus of LCW, where our students will finally be all together, the transformation of the site took my breath away.
You have got to understand. This site has been the incubation tank for every charter school on this side of town. Larchmont started there, then Los Feliz Arts Charter, then back to Larchmont, then us and Larchmont, then Larchmont, and now all us.
The site has been painted and repainted by ambitious parents and hopeful educators. I really did not think it could be improved.
But it has.
This is the mural outside--just a tiny portion of it--coordinated by Joey, father of Presley--a realtor and muralist (so L.A.!). The wall is covered with colored stencils from one end to the other. There are birds, Tahitian masks, elephants, yoga poses (that was me!) fish, and frogs balancing on reeds. Around the corner a blue butterfly soars to the heavens.
The mural is so simple and so elegant. Even better is knowing that dozens of parents (and children!) worked on it.
The economy is crashing, and our nation is fucked, but my school makes me inordinately happy.
I feel so blessed, so extraordinarily blessed, to be part of this tiny community, an incubator of hope.
Every year the Y pool shuts down right as I should be ante-ing up my swimming for my Alcatraz training. Two weeks of no pool, no child care, and no Ricardo pushing me during Fitness swim.
So today I rose at 6 and drove to the West Hollywood pool.
How beautiful LA is at 6:15. The air is pink, the mountains are rose. The streets are empty and the palms cast long shadows over the boulevards. Everything looks magical.
The air is still cool, but I dove into the warm water and swam my 2000 yards (not quite as long as the race). By 7:45 I was home, tired, blissed out, surrounded by an aura of positive ions that cling to me like a cloud from my time in the water.
When you are in the middle of a mid-life crisis, when you have no idea what is coming next, when your profession is dead and you don't know what the future holds, you can see a therapist, a life coach, cry, laugh, whine--or you can just say YES! to whatever comes along.
I will do it all.
That is why I said YES when a friend who runs an improv theater asked me to participate in her upcoming show "My Bad!" on Sept. 11. (no, this is not a sick joke).
Am I crazy?
All the other performers are superbly trained improv actors, who either teach, act daily, or have been on TV. They are professional funny people.
Then there will be me, earnestly reading from my papers, nervously shuffling and muttering, as I read my deeply personal stories for strangers.
Perhaps I will be there to make the others look good. The ugly girl to make the beautiful girls look even better.
But I accept.
I am so lost, so at sea, so up for anything, how can I say no?
I was raised by a harsh father (he had many good qualities, too) who believed in a cruel and punishing God.
I reject his God, and his way of looking at the world, but those feelings he implanted in my young brain linger on like toxic mold.
One feeling, implanted very very young, is that when good things happen, and when I dare to enjoy them, to really revel them, I will later be punished. One never knows where the punishment may come--it is God you are up against after all.
Perhaps the birth of a perfect child means the death of someone you love. Perhaps enjoying your job means your relationship will fall apart. Perhaps loving yourself means you are vain and God will find a way to punish your vanity and take you down a notch.
I was not even aware of how deeply lodged this "good-thing-will-be-followed-by-something-bad" fear was in my brain until I wrote a story about a strange, but fascinating program called The Art of Living. The program was all about using this secret yogic breathing technique to purge yourself and make your dreams come true.
Before the secret breathing exercises we had to write on a card our deepest dreams. At the time my deepest dream was to have a second child. I wrote it on the card. But even wanting--I had been taught--was bad. So I watched what happened when I wrote.
I wrote: "I hope I have a child. I hope I have a healthy child. I hope my other child will not die. I hope my husband will not die. I hope I do not get a horrible disease." It went on and on on like this on my little 5"x7" index card. Each time I asked for something--even if it was just maintaining hte status quo, fear broke out like a cold sweat that something else dear would be taken away. I kept the card for years because it was like the Diary of a Madwoman.
What this has meant in my life, in practical, therapy terms, is that I am scared to want anything. If I believe that good just happened to me, that I did not will it, or desire it, or make it happen, then I will not be punished. But if I go after it, I begin to fear. If I get it, the fears begin to grow like radioactive vegetables. They cannot be stopped.
I have been told, by a wise therapist, to just soldier through. To dare to dream, and to dare to dream bigger, and when bad things do not happen, I will learn it is OK. And my fear, gradually, will begin to diminish. Could take years. Maybe life. But that is my work.
And I have gotten better.
When something is truly great, like this summer, the fears run wild. They cannot be stopped.
I had the sweetest of summers, in the most beautiful places, with wonderful friends. I feel full. Full of beauty, of love, and of delicious food. That should be good.
Yesterday, as we walked to our gate at LaGuardia, I saw a man sitting, avidly reading the Koran. How do I know it was the Koran? Well, I don't. But it was a Holy-looking book, it was written in Arabic, it had an elaborate gold tassel of fine silk, a beautiful cover, well-fingered pages, and he was reading it with great devotion (I swear!)
I was sure I was going to die.
I had had a perfect summer and now my family was going to go down in a terrorist plane crash on the way home. My beautiful boys, my gorgeous husband. We would crash into a fiery field. I tried to hold my paranoia in. But I couldn't. I was ready to pay hundreds of dollars on our non refundable tickets to change to another flight. I just wanted to live. It all made sense. American Airlines (its always American) out of New York (always out of New York) and late August (probably some elaborate date composed of adding and subtracting and 9-ll and important numbers and dates on the Muslim calendar). I knew everything I was thinking was crazy, but I couldn't stop.
I told Jonathan who said we had nothing to worry about.
Then a dark (very cute) young guy sat down and pulled out a computer. He looked Arab, too. It was starting to feel like a team job. Now Jonathan started to get paranoid. But then his mother came over and we thought a terrorist would not take his mother on his final trip to meet the 400 virgins.
So I kissed Jonathan sweetly and told him I had loved my perfect summer. I watched my boys and was not bored when they told me over and over for an hour about each airplane that was landing. I was devoted.
Well, obviously we did not die.
And when we reached the John Wayne airport, the Koran-reading man was hugging his relatives and looked so sweet and huggable I hated myself for even thinking he was a terrorist. I wanted to apologize. To say, "I am sorry, I saw you reading the Koran so I thought you were a Muslim terrorist, but it is not fair. It is not fair that every time I see someone reading a Koran at an airport I am sure I am going to die!!!! I mean if you really were going to kill us, you wouldn't have been so obvious as to bring your Koran and read it to us, would you? I like Muslim people. I do. I don't care if you build a mosque two blocks from the world trade center site, I don't. You should. You really really should."
Later that night Jonathan laughed at me. You always think you are going to die when soemthing is great, he reminded me. It just means you had a perfect summer.
And I must celebrate my life by not giving into the fear of a tyrannical God that my father planted in my head before I had a chance to say "No."
NO, says my 43-year-old self. I do not believe it.
I will not be punished for desiring, for dreaming, for enjoying.
Talk to me next summer, and I will let you know how it went.
Does this ever happen to you? Do you ever believe you will be punished for too much happiness?
post script: Benji was conceived during that Art of Living seminar. They told me to write down my dream and it would come true. And it did. And no one died, or got a horrible disease.
I am an ex-journalist and a mother of two boys. I live in Los Angeles. I am a traveler, an adventurer, a writer. These are my philosophical investigations -- from the kitchen, the playground, and the streets of LA.