Year of the Dog

This is our year, my husband’s and mine.  It’s the Year of the Dog and we were both born in a canine year. I’ve been writing about these Chinese zodiac creatures for years, but only yesterday did I  understand the story behind them.

The Jade Emperor needed twelve guards.  He would select the first twelve animals to enter the Heavenly Gate as Guards of that gate.  Rat rose early as did the Ox, and stowed away in the Ox’s ear until they neared the gate. Rat jumped down and “dashed to the feet of the Emperor,” coming in first, followed by the Ox. Tiger and Rabbit, Dragon and Snake, Horse and Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig followed.  These animals became the Guards of the Heavenly Gate.

On hearing this story, my cat, Gordon, expressed dissatisfaction that the Emperor chose a rat over a cat. This is a common enough question that the storytellers came up with two explanations. One is that Cat asked Rat to wake him up in the morning of the race and Rat purposely let him sleep in, so he would miss the cycle. The other is that on the way, Rat pushed Cat into the water. Gordon says the latter is far more likely. He would never oversleep.

Dogs, according to legend, are loyal, true, honest, just and popular in social circles. My favorite characterization is this: “Everyone needs a Dog friend for advice and help. They are also good at helping others find and fix their bad habits.”

I suspect my popularity in social circles will decline after I’ve called a few people’s attention to their bad habits and offered to fix them, but apparently that’s my destiny.


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Chair fitness: a cure for stress

feline chair fitness

This week, I quit going to a counselor to talk about the anxiety I experience every time I read or hear the name of our President in the media or in conversation with friends. Talking to her was calming and I found some of her relaxation techniques — all of which I knew about, but never actually tried — helpful.

I decided not to see her again for three reasons.  First, she’s hearing the same symptoms from many of her clients, has experienced them herself, and is running out of suggestions for solutions that don’t involve moving abroad.  Second, I’m spending too many hours of my life at appointments, from physical therapy to chiropractic to pedicures. (And no, I’m not giving up the pedicures.) Third, I think I’ve found something better, namely putting my body through exercise hell, which forces me to focus exclusively on the pain and ignore politics.

I have enrolled in many fitness classes over the years. In my head I am still able to jump high, run fast, lift fifty pound weights, hike to the top of Mt. Si, and cross-country ski for miles and miles.  These days, I am always shocked to find out that I can’t do any of these things.

This should explain my reaction when a trainer at my local Y suggested I try their “Chair Fitness” class.  Chair fitness?  Really? This woman and I took an impossibly difficult exercise class together years ago. Admittedly, she was much younger and stronger — and a bit of a show off — but I forgave her for besting me in every exercise drill because of her youth.

She handed me the class schedule and I took it from her with more enthusiasm than I felt, then crumpled it up when I got home. A few weeks later I thought about her recommendation again.  Currently, all I do for exercise is walk.  And I find I am having trouble carrying the hundred pound bag of groceries that the teenage box girl hands to me with a smirk and says, “Have a nice day,” which really means, “I dare you to get this one all the way to your car.”

Two weeks ago, I walked into Chair Fitness and glanced smugly at my new classmates, all of whom seemed downright elderly. One of them advised me to pick up my weights, ball and resistance band before we got started and to put some distance between myself and the person next to me so we wouldn’t be hitting each other. This sounded wilder than I expected.

Since then I’ve attended four Chair Fitness classes and two Chair Yoga sessions. These have disabused me of any thoughts that they are for wusses.  We spend a lot of time out of our chairs and even when we’re sitting, we’re still moving all our body parts. And all mine are sore.

Anyone who’s practiced yoga is familiar with the tree pose.  We do this standing behind our chairs, which are there to grab on to if we need them.  The instructor says this pose is known to reduce anxiety since it calls for our complete attention. If our minds wander we fall. There is no way to do the pose successfully and think about national politics or anything else going on in our lives.

If I cannot sleep tonight I hope it will be from muscle pain instead of anxiety, though the email I just got from a friend about our president did raise the anxiety level. Maybe I also need to stop reading emails.



Posted in current events/themes, exercise, health | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

When to say “yes” and when to say “no”

The subheading for an article in this week’s New Yorker is, “What if self-improvement is making you worse?” This is related to a dilemma I’m experiencing now.

Writer Alexandra Schwartz says that approaches to self-help change with the times and describes some of the current batch of advice books and self-improvement tools.

In contrast to this new wave of guides to improvement is another set of readings designed to help you stop trying to improve, or even encourage you to proudly raise your middle finger to any suggestions that you might need to. An example of a book not designed to bring out the rebel in us, but rather to calm the neurotic seeker of a new self is, “Selfie: How We Become So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us,” in which author Will Storr says, “People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become.” Other books in the anti-self-improvement genre tell readers to accept their flaws, tell their bosses exactly what’s on their minds, and stop caring what others — especially supervisors — think of them. Caution: people who do this might need to be independently wealthy.

I have made my way partly through a self-improvement book called “Essentialism.” It’s geared to heads of corporations/businesses and to those looking to climb to the top rung of the corporate ladder or even advance from the ground to a footstool. Its message: focus. Have one priority, one goal, and say no to anything that doesn’t help you achieve that goal.  I squirmed as he described people who said yes to every request from colleagues they worked with; he could have been talking about me. Even far removed from work as I am, and with no rungs to climb (though I would like to see my second novel published), I still find myself saying yes to requests from others.

His advice? 1) decide that most things you’re doing aren’t important; 2) choose the one that is; 3) eliminate the time wasters; 4) make your focus your routine.  If I really wanted to see a book of mine published, maybe I should write a self-improvement book instead of a novel. Plotting seems easier.

For a few days I decided “essentialism” was exactly what I needed.  Soon after that, I agreed to help plan a conference and to lead one book group discussion and gave my tentative acceptance to joining a Spanish language conversation group. It’s clear I must finish and then reread the book before I take on any more jobs.

The opposing view to “Essentialism” arrived in an email this week in an article from the blog called feedblitz, titled “An improv principle that can save your year.” The writer says that in improv theatre a better performance will result if actors say yes in response to whatever ridiculous offer a fellow actor makes onstage, than if they say no. In the same vein, he goes on to relate a personal story of saying yes off-stage, which led to an unanticipated interview with a movie producer. He advises, “It might be worth thinking about whether this year you’d like to try saying ‘yes, and…’ to more things and seeing what happens.”

There you have it. Say yes or say no? On the job, saying yes led me into opportunities to test out my skills in many interesting ways that I don’t regret.  However, now retired and unsure how many years I have left, I think I should practice shaping my lips into a no, at least one or two times this year, and hope by doing it I don’t miss out on an interview with a movie producer.





Posted in books and movies, changes after retirement, personal reflections, volunteering | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Masking: a better you?

As we age and get closer to the last stages of life, we sometimes have regrets about experiences we didn’t have or ones that passed us by. I’m not yet at that stage (I hope), but I have arrived at a period where I’m delighted that certain cultural phenomena are leaving me behind. I’ve named several here and I’m sure I can come up with more and you can too.

I’ll start with bitcoin. It’s something I don’t understand and am thankful I never have to.

The second cultural experience that I’m happy to miss is ageism on the job, specifically what can happen to someone starting a new job, but by no means a first job, well before the age of sixty-five.

From an article by Tad Friend in the November 20, 1917, “New Yorker”: At fifty-one, a laid-off reporter takes a job at a startup company where his boss is in his twenties and has been on the job for a month. The reporter doesn’t dress up, but fails to come to work dressed as a complete slob, and finds himself, “surrounded by programmers in flip-flops who nickname him Grandpa Buzz.” He soon learns that the “expiration date” for tech sector employees is forty. Heaven forbid if he’d shown up — no, not naked — wearing a sport coat.

The third is related to social media. These days I’m relieved I’m not a teenager or college-age student. These young people — usually women — have an opportunity to learn every ten seconds from Facebook, or worse, from some campus rating system, how many of their contemporaries think they’re unattractive or unpopular, and how many social events they’re missing out on because no one wants them there.

Before the age of extreme social media you could enjoy life without knowing what you hadn’t been invited to.  I learned this when I worked on the planning committee for my most recent and probably last high school reunion. Other members of the group were making reference to the popular pizza spot in our area where apparently everyone congregated, and I had no idea what they were talking about. I am thankful that since I didn’t know I was missing out back in high school, I had no reason to feel slighted.

On-line photo and message-sharing platforms are vehicles that allow one to do more than simply insult. They can make multi-millionaires out of twenty-somethings who post on them, but that’s not what I want to talk about. I just read about a disturbing new trend from another “New Yorker” article authored by Jiayang Fan. Called “internet celebrity face” in Chinese, it has spread to more of Asia and is moving to the U.S.

It involves posting clever, silly and sexy selfie videos but with a new twist. Users can and do add apps that allow them to change their appearance before they post their works. They can “smooth out, tone, slim, contour faces, whiten teeth, resize irises, cinch waists and add height.”

Of the generation using this and similar apps, the writer says, “No one I asked would consider posting or sending a photo that hadn’t been improved.”

A few of these young internet celebrities are making millions selling ads. Their biggest day-to-day worries focus on whether their current video has gone viral. It’s a form of fake news, but the lie is not in their words but in “improved” faces.

On the other hand, is anyone developing an app for marionette lines? Maybe the Chinese app developers can create a new market they haven’t yet considered.

Posted in aging, personal reflections | 4 Comments

The high costs of changing eating habits

(NOTE:  I wrote this yesterday so tomorrow has become today.)

Tomorrow I begin the “Cooking Light 3-Day Detox.” I’m preparing by trying to eat up all the sweets still remaining in my house after the holidays, but my husband and I are heading out to a party soon and I fear I will fail to finish everything.

The first step in the program is to look over the magazine’s list of forty-three food items and go shopping for the ones you don’t have. I’m thankful I had many of the ingredients, which meant I only had to spend seventy dollars at the grocery store for the ones I didn’t. Seventy dollars for three days for one person, and that doesn’t include the chicken breasts I still have to buy.

But no one said detoxing came cheaply. Which reminds me of a cleansing treatment popular twenty years ago — it may still be, but I don’t hear about it any longer — called colonic irrigation. Now that kind of detox sounds downright nasty, like the enemas kids in my generation had to suffer through. I’m thankful to whichever medical expert persuaded our mothers to give up this folk remedy early in our lives.

My last supper (from NY Day party)

This detox diet consists mostly of whole grains, vegetables, chicken and fish. Unlike some detox treatments, this one has no strange ingredients, no eye of newt or toe of frog.The only sugar comes from the frozen mangos and bananas on the first morning, which will offer an interesting contrast to my daily Trader Joe 72% dark chocolate bar and my nightly helping of ice cream or tapioca pudding.

Although this is not a weight loss diet, I hope to lose at least one of the eight pounds I’ve gained since June, when my husband and I ate our way through Scandinavia via its many smorgasbords. “Restrained” did not describe our behavior when presented with fifteen starch choices; six chicken, beef, sausage and fish dishes; seven types of bread; and fourteen desserts twice a day for almost three weeks. Everything but the lutefisk (which smells like ammonia and likely tastes worse) called to us from the warming trays nestled together on tables covering miles of ballroom-sized rooms.

Ever since I made my decision a week ago, I have poured over the magazine’s menus for each meal and wondered if there will be enough food to keep me from being tempted to cheat. A half cup of brown rice pilaf and two cups of kale? I’d rather the measurements were switched. And speaking of kale, it looks like I’ll eating a lot of it. I guess they expect you to fill up on that plus fresh parsley and cilantro, walnuts by the teaspoon, and spinach. I tell myself I can make it through three days. But my story stops there. Any internal monologue about what happens after that is missing.






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Winter solstice and dreams of summer

January 2012

“The winter solstice has always been special to me as a barren darkness that gives birth to a verdant future beyond imagination, a time of pain and withdrawal that produces something joyfully inconceivable, like a monarch butterfly masterfully extracting itself from the confines of its cocoon, bursting forth into unexpected glory.” Gary Zukov

Today is the solstice.  In the Pacific Northwest, we will have eight and a half hours of daylight. But wait until June when this number is nearly doubled, and we all become monarch butterflies.

I minded the darkness more when I was working than I do now. Driving to work in the dark and driving home in the dark made it seem like I was living in a twenty-four hour night. Now I can get up at seven, see daylight coming and not think so much about its loss.

I checked other cities, ones my husband and I love, to find out how they were faring. We will have fifteen minutes more light than Paris, the City of Light, and nearly an hour more than Amsterdam.

But we’re all more fortunate than residents of Reykjavik, who will have a four-hour day, and Swedes in Stockholm who are enjoying only six hours of light. We’ve tried to imagine what it would be like to stay in these two cities for a lengthier period, a few months rather than a few weeks.  A spokeswoman for Reykjavik’s tourist information center reminds us that they have many hot pools in town, which would surely raise one’s spirit on cold, dark days. Swedes probably take saunas. Still, you can only sit in a large bathtub for so long, so the moral of the story is: if we were to go to Iceland or Sweden in winter, we would need to bring a good and very long book.

People in northern countries have to get used to delayed gratification when it comes to temperature and light. Having been to both these northern cities during the June solstice, we can appreciate how nicely they are rewarded in summer for their patience in winter: Reykjavik, 22 hours of daylight, and Stockholm, 18.

We’ll be fine today because the sun is shining, but our normally rainy winters do make some people depressed. The consequence of a steady string of dark, dreary days for some is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I had a boss who became very cranky by the end of January and I always advised him to take a trip.

SAD is “thought to occur when daily body rhythms become out-of-sync because of the reduced sunlight.”

The easiest solution to the SAD problem — other than joining the geese and flying south — is the light box therapy lamp, which you turn on for a short time each morning to brighten your mood for the day.  We bought one, but have not yet used it.  Perhaps we should visit Iceland to try it out.  We’ll take that and a large book.






Posted in current events/themes, health, seasons | 3 Comments

“NaNoWriMo” is over and so is any hope for discipline

2011 NaNoWriMo t-shirt

November was National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo and mispronounced by friends as something like “Nah, No Rhinos.”

My first foray into NaNoWriMo took place in November 2011. That year I participated fully, which means I started a novel and wrote 50,000 words in the month, which added up to 1666.67 words a day. I did this while blogging three times a week. At the end of the month, I bought the t-shirt welcoming me to the winners’ circle, but it didn’t fit. How could it, when I hadn’t left my chair for thirty days except to raid the frig?

As to how I managed all that writing, I can only say I was younger then. Surprising as it may seem, this exercise in carpel tunnel syndrome, neck-jutting and shoulder-rounding did have a downside.  Besides weight gain, that is. A few years later, after I completed my novel, I had only used one or two sentences out of those 50,000 words.

This year, I signed up for NaNoWriMo and set my own rules: write 700 words every day, and add to the novel I’m working on now; don’t even think about starting something new.  Even following my own rules and hardly blogging at all, the experience was a huge challenge. Why?  It took Discipline, a word I’ve capitalized because it wasn’t the kind of normal discipline, such as getting up early one day a month to get to an appointment on time, which my life as a retiree calls for. This discipline required writing from two to five hours a day for thirty solid days. I regret that it did not require I stay out of the refrigerator.

By the time I finished, I had brought another seventy pages into the world, pages that are keepers, at least for my first draft.

“I should do that every day,” I told my husband. I’d finish in another month or so. “All it takes is a goal and discipline.”

December 1 passed and then December 2. Now it’s December 3 and I haven’t put a word to a page. Why not? I don’t feel like it. What I would prefer is to keep eating sweets. To stop one bad habit and restart the good habit, I’m going to have to demonstrate more discipline, but it seems impossible to be disciplined in two areas of my life at once. So if I want to get the novel done, it looks like I’m stuck with having to eat desserts while I’m doing it.


Posted in current events/themes, humor, personal reflections, writing | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

My sexual harassment story

Although I’ve felt too busy this month to blog, the daily onslaught of accusations of sexual harassment around the world has inspired me to take a break from adding seven hundred words a day to my current novel and share my personal story.

I’ll introduce my story with another, namely, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” In this novella, Dr. Jekyll attempts to create a potion to prove his theory that two different entities may live within the same body. When he drinks his potion, he turns into a murderer: Mr. Hyde. Drinking it again turns him back into the man of science: Dr. Jekyll. Two men in one. Over time, the alternate personality of Mr. Hyde becomes dominant and takes control of Dr. Jekyll.

Now for my story.  For five years, I worked in a community college admissions office. Recently, I read that someone coined the expression “sexual harassment”on the east coast in the 1970’s. Maybe so, but for years the word didn’t pierce the west coast bubble I lived in.

My experiences at the college started small. It was a two-story building and I always took the stairs to the second floor. One time, when I opened the door on that floor, I was greeted with a pair of puckered lips attached to the face of an administrator, who had seen me enter the stairwell on the floor below and then taken the elevator up himself, so he could ambush me. (Despite this bizarre encounter, I continued taking the stairs because seeing his lips approaching me in an elevator would have been much creepier.)

This man’s behavior was mild compared to the stunts of the Director of Admissions.  He would rub up against women from behind and encourage them to take advantage of his many physical gifts. I once made the mistake of entering his office — at his request — and letting him shut the door behind me. On my way out he stood at the door and grabbed hold of my breasts. Dr. Jekyll.

The women who worked for him traded stories. While what he did was humiliating, our stories made him the laughingstock of the department. For some reason he never seemed powerful, never seemed like he could hurt anyone’s career, but none of us ever spoke up. Who would we complain to? Other guys just like him?

The man had a young child maybe three or four years old, and from time to time he brought her to work. When she was around, he was not the same lecher. He glowed when he walked into the office holding her hand, and she worshipped him.  Jekyll or Hyde?

Fast forward many years. I was promoted to a different department, then left the college for several other jobs and forgot about this man.

My last job before retirement was in the central office of a K-12 public school system. Imagine my shock when I met the harasser’s daughter as a thirty-something adult just beginning her teaching career. A veteran teacher mentor, who was protective in the extreme, worked with her. The young woman struck me as very vulnerable.

She hadn’t been teaching long when I heard that her father had died of a heart attack.  Traumatized by his death, she took a long leave of absence and ultimately quit work.  I never knew what happened to her after that.

I’m sure there are many examples from history of dictators who treated their families well, but never have I known someone personally who was two distinct people: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Given the behavior of my boss’s child, I fear the Hyde character might have taken over him.


Posted in current events/themes, grief and loss, personal reflections | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

What is that smell?

Ever have a room in your house you didn’t know what to do with? I did. But recently, I decided to fix up that room, which is known as a “bonus room,” even though having it did not feel like a bonus. I decided my bonus room should be an uncluttered, peaceful space for writing, reading and meditating.

Uncluttered didn’t work out according to plan, but peaceful and quiet are still good descriptors.  Among the items I moved there were my collection of essential oils purchased in another era and the aromatherapy diffuser. When heated, the oils soothe, comfort and cover up the odor of the cat’s litter box, which is also in that room.

What a surprise when I opened up the October 9 issue of The New Yorker and found out that essential oils are big business. “Something In The Air” is the name of the article and it’s a good read.

You can buy these oils, or sell them and possibly make a bundle of money. The article says the current annual incomes of people selling these products range from $1 to $1 million. The latter record must belong to those who got warmed up in an earlier life selling Amway, Mary Kaye or Tupperware.

I’m taking a slight birdwalk here to talk about a personal Amway experience. Years ago, in Guanajuato, Mexico, an acquaintance asked me to talk to her Amway crew.  She had a group of women –her sales force ?– she met with regularly and wanted me to give them a pep talk… in Spanish. Within hours I found myself in front of a large group having planned nothing to say in English much less Spanish.  I stumbled for a few minutes and realized I didn’t even know what Amway was. As soon as it was clear to the women that I had nothing inspirational to say and I could barely communicate on this topic, they started looking at their watches and filing their nails. My friend looked crestfallen and I felt mortified .

But back to essential oils. The founder of one prominent oil company (not to be confused with Exxon or Shell), a naturopath who earned his “doctorate degree from an unlicensed school,” was once charged with practicing medicine without a license and was seen on video “performing gallbladder surgery and giving essential oils intravenously.” But we’re safe. He only does this in other countries.n

The health promises of different oils are beyond good or even great.  Healthy digestion? Simple. Reduced anxiety? sure. Regenerated cells? Of course. conquering autism? Why not? Cure cancer? You bet. And much more.

Frankincense and rose oil are among the most costly ones. A single barrel of the latter, per one wholesaler, “is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.” He keeps the rose oil, an ounce of which takes more than a million petals to create, under lock and key.

After reading the article, I rushed upstairs to read the labels on my oil bottles. I found geranium, sandalwood, honeysuckle, applewood, clary sage and bergamot — the anchors of my collection — which the article did not mention once. I did find something called Rose Absolute, which at the price I paid for it, probably required ten petals in its production.

Needless to say, even if I had the right stuff, it hasn’t been properly stored, cold-pressed, or grown organically, so I cannot sell it on eBay for an outrageously expensive sum. The one thing I can promise to any potential buyers, is that it is a great remedy for litter box odors.





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Bad experiences make a good story

implant models: source of my friend’s disastrous experience

“We’re all made of stories. When they finally put us underground, the stories are what will go on.” Charles de Lint, contemporary fantasy author.

I love stories, to tell them and to hear them. When I’m in a particularly uncomfortable situation, I tell myself that once it is over it will make a good story, and usually it does. I like to hear friends’ horrible experiences too. Misery loves company and all, but others’ stories also help me think about how I might handle the situations they describe (usually not as well as they did).

I’m hardly alone in my appreciation of story. According to the book, “Wired for Story, ” “Stories allow us to simulate intense experiences without actually having to live through them. This was a matter of life and death back in the Stone Age…”

Unlike Stone Age people, most of us live routine lives: wake up, satisfy our morning caffeine needs, get ready for work and go. A good story takes us out of this everyday world.

It’s fall, time to sit by the fire with a glass of wine and share stories. This week, a friend named Lydia told me one about her first two weeks in a new job, which I’m going to share.

 Starting a new job

Lydia spent her entire first week at a public relations firm going through training. Not the “here’s your desk and your job description and our code of conduct” kind of training, but rather, a full education on the topic of silicon implants. Yes. Really.

Here’s a little about what she learned.  Silicone is a rubber-like compound used for many purposes, including by plastic surgeons to build up biceps, pectoral muscles, breasts and a male body part.

In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration “banned these implants for general consumption” as a result of hundreds of women who’d had breast implants complaining they caused cancer, autoimmune problems, and other medical issues.

For her second week on the job, Lydia got to attend a plastic surgeon’s convention. There the keynote speaker, who was head of the corporation that made the implants, announced that the ban had just been put in place and then immediately skipped out of the conference.

Anticipating an unfriendly response to his speech, he also left his own firm’s PR people at home and left hundreds of plastic surgeons in a state of despair, because they had a full schedule of implants on their calendars and feared they would not be able to get the product in time. (I keep wondering why they didn’t have a teensy bit of concern for the safety of the women they’d already done surgery on or were about to cut, but apparently that wasn’t their issue).

My friend and her new colleagues — now suspicious their primary role was as cannon fodder — spent hours trapped in an information booth trying to appease these unhappy plastic surgeons.

“It was horrible,” Lydia said. “We expected professionals to be…well…professional.  Instead they just wanted to vent and they directed all their anger at us.”

I suspect the plastic surgeons were less impressed with my friend’s and her colleagues’ new knowledge about implants than with their total inability to resolve the problem.

The biggest surprise was that my friend stayed with the firm after her trial by inferno, but she did.  Maybe she figured the job couldn’t get any worse.

Do any readers have horror stories from their first days/weeks on the job stories? If so, please share. I’d love to compile them into a blog or two.






Posted in humor, Uncategorized | 4 Comments