Reconnecting with the past

 Grade school reunion

Grade school reunion – two of us taking pictures are not shown

What do you talk about when you’re eating lunch with friends from grade school? I wondered about this as I drove to meet a long lost group of women friends, most of whom I hadn’t seen much of since I left for college. I found out that you rush to catch up on the last many years, reminisce, fill in gaps in each other’s memories, and take care of old business.

Peggy led off with old business.  “I’m sorry,” she said to Darlene, “for pushing you into the sticker bushes in third grade.”

Apologies accepted and now over, four of us told the story of taking our bicycles onto a ferry, which landed us many miles away from home. From there we rode to a piece of beach property owned by one girl’s parents and camped. We slept in sleeping bags. Out in the open.  No way to contact the outside world.  No other people nearby, except those passing by on the roadway that bordered the stretch of beach we camped on. We had enough food for one night but no money to buy more. We went into town and used a pay phone to call  home; one girl’s father brought us more food the next day. And left. It was a great adventure. Especially when you realize that if parents let their kids loose like this now, they’d be getting a visit from Child Protective Services.

Returning to the present, we talked about grandkids, marriages, divorces and separations, illness, losing parents or still having parents, travel, and some of the other things that typically occur in long and full lives. And everyone asked at least once, “Whatever happened to (insert classmate name here)?”

All of us live within 25 miles of each other, a few in the same neighborhood we grew up in. Yet we’ve kept apart for more years than I want to see in print.

As a rule, I’ve been inclined to look ahead and dismiss the past. I’m rethinking that strategy. There’s nothing quite like reminiscing with childhood friends to make me feel grateful for being able to grow up in the stable environment I did, with a solid network of friends, who as adults are more likely to help you when you encounter stickers in life than to push you into them.

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“Photo 365″

What lenses do you use to examine your experiences? Another way to ask this is, how do you frame your experiences?

When I used to prepare for media interviews people always advised me to frame the issue myself, not let reporters do it for me. As in, this isn’t a story about an employee stealing from the lunch till; rather, it is about swift administrative action in response to a crime. Yeah, right.

Wikipedia defines “framing” as “how individuals, groups, and societies organize, perceive, and communicate about reality.”

I thought about framing after a friend suggested I download an app to my phone called Photo 365.  “You take a picture a day for a year,” she said. I forgot to ask her what you did with them at the end of a year. Didn’t matter.  I like photography but have limited time to pursue it, so the idea of one photo a day sounded enticing.  It wouldn’t involve a big investment in time, but would guarantee I’d be alert for photo opps wherever I went.

“What pictures have you taken so far?” I asked my friend.

“None. I’m not sure what theme to choose.”

The idea of a theme made the project even more appealing.  A year’s worth of photos stitched together with one overarching thread.  ‘Seasons’ would be a nice theme, I thought, but in the dead of winter I’m not likely to go on a daily hunt for yet another picture of decaying leaves or a rainstorm.

I finally chose “people,” broad but more likely to keep me going for a year than ‘selfies’ or ‘meals I have prepared or eaten out,” the current rage in Facebook.

eleanor2I took my first picture last week. My subject was Eleanor, who at ninety-three is the oldest among my writers’ critique group friends. I snapped her while she was making pizzas using a recipe that reminded her of her Italian roots. The next day I photographed a woman working on a church cleanup party. She was emptying out a fridge.

So had I accidentally adopted a stereotype for my theme? Women cooking and cleaning?  I’ll know better in a year.  If I show anyone else my pictures they’ll create their own frame, so mine won’t matter. And speaking of frames, photo 365 allows you to choose frames for each of your photos. If nothing else, this project will remind me where I’ve been between now and April 9, 2015.  I ask myself at the end of each year, Where did it go? This year, with my photos I should be able to answer.



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Christie Brinkley, Chuck Norris and me

weightsEver since my mom suffered from Alzheimer’s I’ve worried about my brain. (Friends say I should have started worrying sooner.) I’ve read that strenuous exercise can provide some protection against dementia — more than doing crossword puzzles and having a social support network — but I never did much more than walk, because I always hurt myself at the gym. Not seriously, just little aches like a hamstring strain that took nine months to heal. 

But now I’m taking two athletic classes a week. This happened by accident. The local Y offered two courses called Gravity and I signed up for the wrong one, that is, the one that compressed an hour session into thirty minutes.

The better name for the class is, “Death by Total Body Workout.” Maybe you’ve seen the commercial on TV.  Christie Brinkley and Chuck Norris – Beauty and the Beast — team up to show off their buff bodies and persuade viewers to buy one of the machines they’re exercising on. We use a similar machine. Picture me as Chuck, without the beard, but with sweat dripping from every pore and my face much pinker.  

I chronicled my first few classes in an earlier blog.  After six weeks I discovered I had abs, though they were — and still are — hiding under a few layers of padding. My classmates are younger than me by fifteen to twenty years.  To give them their due, they also adjust their machines for a harder workout than mine, and, unlike me, barely sweat.

A few months ago the instructor suggested I try another of her classes: “Above the Barre.”

“What’s it like?” I asked.

“A little like ballet.”

My husband asked what was involved in this new class.  “Stretching, I imagine,” I said.  I soon found out that the only thing stretched was the meaning of “a little like ballet.” Yes, sometimes we point our toes or stand in first position. We also bend, kick, twist, and raise small weights in the air while we push, pull and pulse. And that’s the warm up.

The odd thing is, that I haven’t hurt myself. I’m stronger. According to WebMD, “A lot of the problems we used to think of as being related to aging, we now know aren’t related to aging at all. They are related to disuse of the body…”

The workouts are important for improving bone density, balance, and, I hope, my brain. WebMd says, “More intense exercise is actually better than moderate exercise for lowering cholesterol.” This month my doctor said I could stop taking cholesterol medication. Another benefit is that I’m not uncomfortable wearing sleeveless tops. Occasionally I even glance into mirrors to admire my biceps.


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Salt therapy

My salt necklace

My salt necklace

Today’s blog provides much-needed contrast to an earlier one I wrote about spending a large chunk of a day with friends at a women’s spa where everyone ran around naked and a technician gave us a scrub that removed at least one layer of skin. Now I’m writing about a very different kind of spa: one that involves salt and lots of it.

Halotherapy is what a friend and I went for, though we didn’t know it at the time. I went because “salt spa” piqued my curiosity.  I kept my many questions to myself.  First, I couldn’t form a mental picture of what the spa would look like. An underground mine perhaps? Beyond that I wondered if we could keep our clothes on. Would we have to do something physical? Would it hurt? Would we shake salt, lick it or otherwise ingest it?  Would we notice any changes afterwards? Despite the unknowns, I was ready to experience whatever came my way.

As soon as we arrived, answers to my general questions came fast. The instruction to, “take off your shoes before going into the salt room,” released whatever tension I’d come in with. A woman ushered us into a room lined with salt blocks colored in desert tones.  Wall to wall salt.

We laid down on patio-style recliners.  I read later that these were “zero gravity chairs.” A woman wrapped blankets around us.  A waterfall built into one wall dripped and splashed.  The woman closed the door on the four of us who were lying down, and turned on a generator.

Music, which seemed calming at first but became so obviously repetitive that I really, really wanted it to stop, wafted in and a light show began.  During the forty-five minutes we were there we lived through a day and night. We watched the sun come up, lounged through a golden sunny day, and gazed at stars twinkling in the ceiling sky. Except for the music, the experience was very relaxing.

When it ended, my friend asked, “Was that you snoring?”

I said, “No. I thought it was you.”

Unlike traditional spas that promise to make you as loose as a jellyfish and beautiful too, the salt spa aims to help sufferers from asthma and respiratory illnesses. According to Wikipedia, the generators in salt rooms, “crush rock salt” into tiny particles “ionize the particles, and release them into the air.”  Salt particles this size can “travel deep into the lung…”

I went in with a cold and came out with one.  I guess colds have to run their course with or without the aid of salt. One woman in the room told my friend that she had been diagnosed with lung cancer, but that lying in the salt room three times a week had made breathing easier for her. I guess the common cold must also need more than one treatment.

Salt for healing is not a new idea.  “Salt therapy is a modern variation of the Eastern European tradition of spending time in natural salt caves for health.” ( According to legend, a doctor came upon the idea of salt therapy “after observing the good health of salt miners” in a Polish mine.

According to the spa’s literature, “Our salt wall [one they would install in your home] is an ideal way to make dry aged beef.” Are we talking about beef jerky? This discomfiting information dashed all hopes of looking more youthful after my spa experience.

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Technology makes me feel old

Instagram cherry tree

Instagrammed plum tree from my back yard

I never feel old.  Never, that is, unless I’m faced with troubleshooting a tech problem or learning how to use a new tech tool, or testing out a new app.  In those situations I become ancient. In fact, I think technology is the cause of all my wrinkles.

Here are a few examples of my tech trials.

Last month my home wifi connection disappeared.  One techie, who should have known what was going on, told me the problem lay with the Comcast modem. My husband, who shouldn’t have known, because his expertise lies in troubleshooting problems with seventeenth century musical instruments, insisted it was the router.  I turned to Comcast for help and spent more than an hour explaining the problem and answering questions via chat support only to be disconnected when its server failed.  When the server recovered I saw that my tech support person had signed off while I had remained faithful during the outage.  I felt as rejected as a teenager whose prom date finds a better catch a week before the big dance. At that moment I considered using wifi at the library or Starbucks and forgetting it at home altogether.  Miraculously, the problem was solved when the techie who should have known better decided my husband, who had gone ahead and installed a new router, was right and we just needed to push the reset button. Duh.

A few weeks ago a slightly younger friend taught me how to use Instagram.  I asked her how she figured it out.  She said she spent a couple of hours reading about it on her desktop computer before trying it on her phone.  Those are hours I wouldn’t have wanted to spend, though I’m glad she did.  I was able to post an Instagrammed photo on Facebook. My excitement lasted only as long as it took me to realize that on Instagram you’re supposed to follow people, so you can receive dozens of photos hourly on your phone.  All I wanted was to make my pictures look old-fashioned and put a frame around them.

I’m planning to buy an iPhone this week to replace a three-year old smart phone. I hate to think about what I won’t know how to do on the new phone.

Recently I whined about my technology failures to a friend and asked him whether my problems could be solved by having a teenager in the house.  Having had two at home years earlier, he suggested I might be better off facing my technology challenges on my own.

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Unforgettable music festivals

There are music festivals and then there are music festivals.  I’ve been to only two in my life, years apart. I’ll remember the first one forever.

The Isle of Wight Festival was held in 1969 at its namesake off the Southern Coast of England. (We did not see the naked people covered in frothy soapsuds shown on the above link.)  Three of us — my future husband and a female friend — went for the music:  Bob Dylan, The Who, The Band, Richie Havens, the Moody Blues.

We were not alone.  The expected audience of 100,000 for the two day-one night event reached 700,000. The size of the crowd turned it into a two-night event, because the ferry to Southampton didn’t run after midnight and no one could get off the island when the music ended.

We spent the previous night in a youth hostel. The Moody Blues’ “Knights in White Satin” wafted through the hostel windows building our anticipation for the next day’s lineup.

The festival venue — a dusty pasture — made the youth hostel look grand by comparison.  The only unoccupied spot we found to sit on was a few kilometers from the stage.  This is just a guess since we didn’t have binoculars and could hardly see anything but silhouettes in the distance. We read later that Bob Dylan and others were there, but the music that had mesmerized us after dark from our youth hostel beds didn’t reach our patch of dirt at the festival site with the same clarity. We would be stretching the truth to say we saw — or heard –Dylan or any of the other well-known groups, except Richie Havens.

I read later that Ringo Starr, John Lennon and George Harrison were in the audience.  I bet they had better seats. They certainly weren’t sitting in our section.

We brought a snack with us, which didn’t last long. There was little food to buy. However, that was the least of our concerns. We were completely grossed out by the bathroom facilities. The women’s consisted of large and full barrels positioned side-by-side in a tent.  And we spent the night after the festival lying on a ferry dock while it drizzled, saved from freezing only by the crowd of thousands. We were on the first boat out the next morning.

informal hallway concert  at Wintergrass 2014

informal hallway concert at Wintergrass 2014

Moving on to festivals 2014:  “Wintergrass,” called a bluegrass festival, but so much more, couldn’t have provided a greater contrast. It was held in a nice hotel with food, drink and real bathrooms. There were dozens of acts to choose from and these were presented in large rooms with good acoustics and enough noise buffering that sounds from a performance in one room didn’t spill into another.  All seats were close enough to the stages to see the performers. The music was outstanding, the playing superb and it was easy for us to walk home at night. I haven’t been to enough music festivals to say that all are like this and that ones like that early Isle of Wight Festival are part of the distant past. For all I know, some haven’t changed at all.  What I do know is that we left Wintergrass wishing for more.

As aging festival goers, even if festivals haven’t all changed, we have.

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From Aerograms to Instagram

a digital moment

Anyone remember ‘pen pals’? The kids your age who lived somewhere else with whom you exchanged letters about your towns, countries and lives, until one or both of you lost interest?

My first pen pal was British. I saw her name in a kids’ magazine. Ads for pen pals were big in those days.  We wrote to each other on thin blue airmail paper called an Aerogram, which we folded into the shape of an envelope and sealed. Airmail postage was expensive and the lighter the letter the more affordable it became. I’m sure my letters to her were a lot like my diaries:  “Went to school.  Went to ballet after school. Played with _____.” Since I figured I’d never meet her I probably added a bit more glamour and excitement to my life in my letters.

My second pen pals were adults from Alma Alta, Kazakhstan, U.S.S.R. (now called Almaty, Kazakhstan). My husband and I responded to a plea during the Cold War from a local high school teacher to build relationships with individual Soviet citizens and further understanding among ordinary citizens. We wrote for a few years, sent photos and post cards of ourselves and our communities, but then the world changed.  The Cold War ended as did the U.S.S.R (I’m pretty sure we had nothing to do with either) and we lost touch.

A few years ago I gained an email pal, a young Iranian woman — Saeide — who had contacted a scholarly friend of ours to ask him about a translation of a Persian poem, which started an email correspondence.  She wanted to be a writer and study in the U.S.  I told him I’d like to email her, too.

Fast forward to the present. Saeide is in her second year of a Masters in Fine Arts program in the U.S. and pursing her dream to become a writer. For the first time I met my email pal in person. She’s in town for the AWP conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs).  We spent part of an evening and a day together, talking about her goals — really, really ambitious — and mine — much less so. While I gave her a walking tour of my city she told me about women’s lives in Iran, her family, her American boyfriend, life as a teaching assistant in a required university English class, culture shock, homesickness — all the things you’d associate with someone coming here from another, very different culture.

She was delightful and fun to be with. As a result, we’ve done something that never could have happened between pen pals in the past, something that will keep us more connected to each other’s lives than ever before. We’ve become Facebook friends.

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