Body Building Through Amazing Grace

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The first time it happened, I knew it would be a recurring theme throughout my life and resigned myself to trudge on. It happened on a Saturday in the 1950s at the New Mission Theater in San Francisco between a double feature — after watching “The Blob,” and before a screening of “Man of the West,” staring 56-year-old Gary Cooper.

The house lights came up and they brought a small hand-cranked drum onstage. They tumbled the contraption, the movie-house manager reached in and pulled out ticket stubs, announced winning numbers. Delighted children ran to the front to pick up their prizes. I studied my losing ticket, prayed a little, knowing enough at nine to rely on Amazing Grace and not too expect much.

My brother Richard won a red and yellow dump truck, huge and gaudy, the back end filled with candy. He put it on his lap, shared Milk Duds with me when the lights went down. I settled into the realization that good luck is hard to come by and prepared to be a perpetual loser, an understudy for the role of enthuser — the one who congratulates others for the good things that befall them and doesn’t betray their own disappointment.

Later iIMG_4498n life I discovered a four-leaf clover pressed in our family Bible, in the Book of Esther: Cha. 2, v. 15, and knew my Great Aunt Eva had found this Irish good-luck charm, that all benefits accrue to the finder, not to afterthoughts like me. They say the odds of finding a four-leaf clover yourself are like 10,000 to 1. I’d already given up playing long shots and closed the book.

When the phone rang yesterday, the woman called me Katherine, my given name, but a name mostly used by telemarketers, dentists and my mother, who died nearly 30 years ago. I braced for the sales pitch, was still clinched when she said, in a flowery voice, “Congratulations!” Faster than a squirrel after a nut, Yeah Right! ran through my head.

It was sitting on the tip of my tongue when she told me I’d been selected in a lottery at the sports club where I practice yoga to participate in weight lifting classes–for free. While not a toy dump truck filled with candy or a four-leaf clover, I’m delighted nonetheless with my unexpected winnings. Except I’m not sure actually what this stroke of luck means.

I’ve always sneaked past the weight room at the fitness club, hustling to get my favorite spot on the floor in the yoga studio. Stud muffins performing feats has never been a particular interest—six packs, eight packs, buns and guns—who gives a rip? Right?

But, truth is, some of my body things have gotten a bit mushy. OK, a lot mushy, like instant oatmeal with tiny apple bits, disgustingly gelatinous in hot water and inedible, if not for the sugar and cinnamon.

You’re not destined to grow softer and weaker just because you’re getting older, experts say in that “Now, Honey” voice. Most muscle loss comes from not using muscles enough as we age, they say, rather than aging itself. Using muscles regularly helps them stay strong and firm, regardless of age, adding it’s important for older adults to strength train. I’m sure there’s truth in this, but wish it didn’t sound so much like a laundry soap commercial.

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An article on the AARP website says studies show men in their 60s and 70s who strength train regularly have muscles that look and perform as well as “inactive men in their 20s and 30s.” An image of beer guzzling, pizza scarfing video game players comes to mind.

The article is supposed to be about the benefits of weight training for “Boomers,” which I thought was a unisex thing. Instead, it focuses on benefits for men.

Turning back to the Internet for further enlightenment, I find a lot of old-lady weight training photos showing white-haired women sitting in chairs at rest homes waving hand weights or worse, grannies with cigarettes dangling from their mouths hoisting a weight in one hand, throwing a middle finger in the other, with a caption something like: “You want a piece of this?”

There are also photos of contemporary young women pumping iron that feature booming bosoms and bulging buttocks and women practicing Olympic-style clean and jerks. More than a few shots feature ladies working out in high heels with adoring men spotting them. Even movie stars have tried their hands at dead weight.

I’m beginning to wonder if I had a winning lottery ticket to a geek show, but I’m not going to act like a dumbbell. No Sir. For the foreseeable future, you’ll find me in the weight room on Thursday evenings with the other winning women. We’ll work up a sweat and count our lucky charms. After all, wise men throughout the ages have noted women hold up half the world. I just want to continue carrying my share of the load with a little bit of grace.

 

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On Writing: Please Pass the Small Potatoes

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Sorry, a P.S. about my writing routine. Again, it’s complicated. After leaving my job of 17 years, I left a familiar, productive routine behind. Interestingly, my body fell apart, maladies of all sorts. I’ve been working through the physical issues and trying to find a rhythm that works as I focus on creative writing.

I’ve tried all sorts of tricks to build a new, productive routine. I swear that has been the hardest part of retirement. Having regular deadlines, publishing several times a week is real and gratifying. Typing away on stuff people don’t care about and will probably never see is discouraging. Although, I think I’m getting closer to a “regular” way of working, it’s not yet firmly established and what others might think about the result nags at me.

But it’s getting better– I’m more productive, less inclined to think about what others might think about my work. I’m more willing to sit at the keyboard actually compose, rather that following Internet click bait down ridiculous rabbit holes, wasting time. These days I’m more inclined to do online research that is actually useful to the projects I’m working on. My novel is approaching critical mass, past the halfway mark and chugging toward the first-draft finish line. My poetry collection is awaiting editing, my magazine article is coming together and will be filed next week.

In part, I’m disciplining myself to work. It’s hard at first to stick to a new routine. But, I had a favorite editor years ago who gave me a shove down the road of self-motivation. He admonished me for turning in my freelance newspaper stories late (I had a house full of little kids, fell down the stairs, my husband went on a 3-week drunk, my car got towed and it was a week before Christmas.)

I explained to him there were extenuating circumstances that caused me to miss my deadline. He nodded, said the story was good, asked about photo choices, layout and timing. It was a productive exchange. I thanked him, made it to the newsroom door.

As I put my hand on the door handle and trip the latch, he stood up, shouted at me across the newsroom and shook his finger: “Kate Campbell! You do your work!” Every reporter turned to look at me clutching the door handle, but not clicking the release. Caught in the spotlight, what could I say? Nothing, except . . . . “Got it!”

It’s one of my grown kids’ favorite stories because they also got it, a lesson learned when they were small.

Don’t know where this new writing energy is coming from, but today I’ll take a second helping. Please pass the small potatoes, those tiny triumphs that eventually add up to full meal and real progress!

Wise Up, Skip the Crap

Six months into retirement, contemplating the stretch of 2017 from the fresh vantage point of January – rainy and cold – it looks like carnage, a quiet village overrun by marauders, chairs toppled, sink filled with dirty dishes, windows stripped of coverings, a mound of wet plastic and cardboard in the courtyard, switch plates missing, electric outlets busted. A mess of biblical proportions.

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My post-holiday garage storage space

A friend suggested writing a story about my whole-house update, my remodeling project that has gone on for months, finally overtaking me a few days before Christmas. The idea was to share the before and after images, the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly.

On Dec. 20 at 7:38 p.m., I signed off on installation of the new carpeting. At that point I was just the tiniest bit over budget and a mere two weeks behind schedule. But I had managed to make six fruit cakes and buy and wrap Christmas gifts, if only I could find the boxes they were in in the garage. What I’d hoped would be a triumphant transformation has turned into – well, a lot more work.

My son and his wife arrived from Los Angeles on Dec. 23 to spend two weeks in a house freshly painted and carpeted, yes, but totally empty. Everything I still own was packed tightly into the garage. I got rid of about half the crap I’ve been hoarding for years, but even so it was a tight fit. It was then I realized putting my house back together was going to take a lot more time than I’d expected. I’ve spun a thick cocoon and it’s going to take a bit longer to kick my way out.

So I tried playing Grinch, wanting time to think about how I would put my house back together, winced at the sound of Christmas carols, squinted with disapproval at the neighbor’s festive outdoor lights, refused to buy a Christmas tree.

My sons, who are those annoying Whos from down in Whosville, said, “No! Christmas is coming no matter what,” and proceeded to drag tables, chairs and boxes, what is left of my junk, back into the house. They bought a table-top tree with oscillating fiber optic lights. I have never in my life owned a fake Christmas tree. My friends Carol and Tony also arrived with a couple of energetic teenagers to help with the household liberation. And then we built a fire, broke out the champagne and partied—for days.

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My Grinchy Christmas Tree

Writer Anne Lamott in a Dec. 30 Facebook essay referred to the yearly resolution to lose weight or make other big life changes and pointed out: “Horribly, but as usual, only kindness and grace–spiritual WD-40–can save us.” Here Lamott is referring to saving us from ourselves. In my case, it’s the quest for perfection, order, absolute control and other delusions I really need to let go of. “Grace” is my word for contemplation in 2017. Grace is the grease I’m looking for.

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) comes into play in my makeover project. I’m about 80 percent done with my project and the last 20 percent will be the hardest part. I tried to finish my project before the holidays so I could sit around in my black velvet slacks and an ugly Christmas sweater – everything in place for a graceful and stylish celebration with friends and family—and accept compliments about what I was able to accomplish in the home improvement department. After all, I am on a first-name basis with half the staff at the Truxel Road Home Depot. But no.

img_4133My plan to wow folks with my ability as a general contractor and interior design expert, not to mention my multi-tasking skills, quickly turned to shit. As you can see, my hubris got ahead of me. The result was a letting go of my constipated expectations and instead enjoy two weeks of fun and a heart swollen with love.

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My favorite Christmas gift, a butterfly trinket box made by Fortuna CA artisan Lawrence Harvey. From my beloved sister-in-law Melanie. The silver coffee and tea service added a grace note in an otherwise absurd situation.

So, I offer you a sincere Happy New Year! I take comfort in the words of Thomas Merton from his essay Hagie Sophia (Ramparts magazine, March 1963) “There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility. This is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister. Wisdom.”

In my case and at my age, it’s hard won wisdom. I wish you Grace and Peace in 2017.

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Son Mark and daughter-in-law Janie, who celebrated their first wedding anniversary on Christmas Day.

Pioneer Days in Sacramento

When Great Uncle George died, my Great Aunt Eva, a ponderous woman with a sweet, cinnamon roll personality, took the loss like a flying trapeze artist working without a catcher. The thud of her heart hitting the ground could be heard all the way from the ranch in Montana to my grandmother’s house in San Francisco. Something  would have to be done, my grandmother said, explaining that her oldest sister – 25 years older – could not stay on the ranch alone, a three day ride to town. Aunt Eva had no surviving children.

Of course this story is more complicated than the death of an in-law and his bereaved widow needing care. But, in short, Aunt Eva’s household was packed and shipped to a wheat and pear ranch the family arranged for her to buy near Clearlake in California. The ranch adjoined the one owned by her sister Emma and her husband, Art.

Then a wildfire swept across Eva’s new ranch. We lived there at the time, in the 1950s, while my father was serving in the U.S. Air Force in Korea. With no men to fight the fire, my mother saved the house, but everything else was lost—barns, sheds, fences, water system, some orchards. We survived the fire, my brother Richard and me, by climbing into the cement water cistern with Aunt Eva. Through a crack in the lid, we watched my mother, later joined by local ranchers, beat back the fire advancing through the grasses toward the house with wet pear-packing gunny sacks.

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Me and my beloved Great Aunt Eva on the ranch near Clearlake CA.

Aunt Eva sold what was left of the Clearlake Ranch and moved into my grandmother’s house in Noe Valley, every last steamer trunk and hat box went into the back bedroom where she lived as an invalid until she died in the 1960s. Eventually Aunt Eva’s things were handed down to me. She was accomplished at needlecraft, making lace, embroidery and astonishingly beautiful quilts. When Great Uncle George died there were many completed quilt tops awaiting backing.  The quilts were never finished.

I tell you this as a way to say goodbye, my friends, at least for a month or so. You see, I inherited those quilt tops and have been storing them under my bed for more than 40 dusty years. Yesterday my son helped me move the quilt boxes to my garage, where we will be sleeping tonight and for many nights to come.

Years, I’ve been packing and counting the years, across decades and millennia. I have lived in my Sacramento house 17 years. Finally, I have the time and money to tear it apart and paint the whole house – entrance to exit – and get new flooring. Every single thing must be out by the end of today. Yes, I have considered dynamite and matches.

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Packing, packing, still more to pack today.

Clearing out means those dusty quilt tops, broken lamps and bed frames, underwear drawers, my adult children’s kindergarten art and the curated collection of their baby teeth, the dusty blue hat with the big bow in the back – price tag still attached (what was I thinking?) – the lapel pin that missed being stowed in my jewelry box, Aunt Eva’s pear coring tool, the suet grinder and food mill for putting up applesauce in the summer kitchen, the photo slides and obsolete diskettes, flimsy particle board book cases, boxes of tear sheets from my days as a journalist, a half-full bottle of blackstrap molasses, stacks of business cards that stretch back to the beginning of my 40-year professional career, the ashes of my former husband, who died seven years ago, his remains still awaiting dignified disposition. The unexpectedly, this ————

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Found this photo of me at a costume fitting  in 1970 for my chorus role in Santa Rosa Community Theater’s revival of the musical “Little Mary Sunshine.” I was surprised to find this reminder of the long-forgotten, playful girl I once was.

Trappist monk and poet Thomas Merton said “as we grow in wisdom, we realize that everything belongs and everything can be received. We see that life and death are not opposites . . .  We don’t have to deny, dismiss, defy, or ignore reality anymore.” At the bottom of all reality is deep goodness, Merton said, calling it the “hidden wholeness.”

So, I’m shutting down, going dark for more than a month  – no electronic chit chat, no messaging, no phone, no Internet, no TV, no connection to the outside world. I will be sleeping with the past in a garage colder than a Montana winter and hoping to find a hidden wholeness, a spiritual reintegration, in the hot mess I’ve made out of my garage.

Back inside the house, there will be renovation going on: new paint, flooring, tile, appliances, light fixtures, window coverings, fences. A total upgrade to usher in a new life, a new creativity, a fresh approach to honoring the past and who I am becoming. This work isn’t easy. It’s physically and emotionally taxing. I’m not sure who I’ll be when I reach the other side. I hope you’ll be there waiting for me.

Good Country Music

Cooler loaded, picnic supplies and scruffy comforter in the back, we lock the front door and check the oil in the Mountaineer—a quart low and too early to do anything about it. The sun has barely roused its sleepy head.

We’re off to Three-Mile Slough in the south delta, fishing poles clickety-clacking all the way from Sacramento, roads mysteriously empty two days before the 4th of July, two days before the sparklers and bottle rockets and Roman candles explode, two days before children break their arms or cut their toes, burn themselves on the barbecue. Two days before life changes fully into summer and the new order of things begins.

Today, one of two free fishing days in California, we cross Three-Mile Bridge to Brannen Island, going after striped bass in the delta’s mixing zone of fresh and saltwater. We go without a license, without a clue, but there’s hope as we settle into canvas camp chairs just after sunrise and study the water. A fish jumps, another and eventually another. We’re in no rush. We have all day, a lifetime to burn daylight.

Wind from the Pacific Ocean pushes through the Golden Gate, flies past Antioch and Oakley, barrels around the tip of Brannen Island where we sit. It rattles tulles, rustles wildflowers, and sends white egrets and blue herons soaring. Ducks paddle through riffles looking for shelter. Stretching away to the west, farmhands tend fields of corn and alfalfa, their tractors’ soft humming carries on the wind.

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A jingle bell fixed near the pole’s tip will signal if a fish comes to nibble at the bait—sardine and anchovy. My son, hurtling toward thirty and rushing to get his line in the water, barely cuts the bait, fixes chunks too large for slough fish on his hook, too big for small stripers, the wrong bait for catfish that suck sustenance from the decaying bottom muck. I hold my tongue, keep faith in my son’s hard-headed ability to keep trying and learning, to keep fishing. The sun turns up its heat and butterflies and dragonflies flit around us.

The island’s named for early California business rascal Samuel Brannen, who bought up land in the delta and throughout the state with funds skimmed from the tithes of his faithful Mormon brethren, eventually losing his empire when he was found out.

Families begin to join us on the island, picking shady sites nearby to picnic. Children, hauling colorful float rings and mats, throw themselves into the warming waters of the slough. My son moves on to deeper water.

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I spread the comforter in thick shade, loll in the relaxed, melodic sounds of Spanish, Tagalog, Korean, Hindi, Vietnamese as women give directions for preparing lunches, laying nap pads under trees for the little ones, and arranging fishing poles for the hours before sunset when the fierce mixing of air and water comes again and the men go fishing.

They come now single–file, like squaws along a trail, coming from the overnight camps at the park’s south end. In ancient times they’d be gathering tulles for baskets, roots for medicine or acorns for mush, gossiping as they went about their tasks.

But, these country matrons chatter in English, dress in low-cut tank tops and tight shorts, wear sequins on their flip-flops and ball caps.  They sip from tall tumblers and play country songs from a hidden music box. Near my table, the last picnic spot cooks in the sun. They sit at the table for a while in the glare, smooth on suntan lotion, edge closer to my shady site. Stretched out beneath a thick cottonwood tree, I secretly watch them from under the brim of my sunhat.

“He said we had to be outta here by noon, then he got in the boat with his fishing poles,” one woman said. They laugh, all agree they were told the same thing. “We’ll be lucky to be home by midnight.” Then they fall to talking about the advent of their first menstrual cycle, compare how they felt, how prepared they were for the event, the response of straight-laced grandmothers, absent mothers, step-fathers, their own daughters now edging toward the day.

Alan Jackson sings from the music player buried inside the beach bag, resting now on my paper sack filled with cups and plates, a few plastic forks: “It’s alright to be little bitty, a little hometown or a little big old city. Might as well share, might as well smile. Life only goes on for a little bitty while.”

I relax, keep spying on these squatters pushing into my picnic space, blithely nudging aside my bag of pita chips. My son returns to the congress of matrons, glances at me playing possum under the tree. Before they can move, a crowd arrives, perhaps from the parking lot or from some celestial hiding spot, a few are dressed in white choir robes, others in patent leather shoes, sun hats and dress slacks. They skirt my picnic table and make their way down the slope to where the dozens of children play in the water.

The man in a flowing white robe wades into Three Mile Slough as his followers form a tight knot on the shore and to the astonished crowd declares in Spanish a “baptismo.” One after another, three teenagers enter the water and wade to the minister.

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He murmurs to them in Spanish: “Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” He calls down Espirito Sancto, tells the drenched teens to continue “glorificando a Deus,” tells them to become “fishers of men.” Then the congregation disappears.

The children return to their water play, the matrons return to lunch preparations and finding their fisherman husbands. My son and I eat salami and cheese sandwiches, chew on brownies, pack the Mountaineer, which is still a quart low. My son did not catch a striped bass, although he said others fishing around him did. But, in the spirit of hope, he says we have enough bait left for tomorrow. I love him too much to remind him free fishing is only for today. We don’t have fishing licenses.

Cover Photo: Three-Mile Bridge by Sacramento photographer Joe Chan. Joe’s images are currently on exhibit and for sale at Locke Food and Wine, the Moon Café and River Road Gallery. Down in Walnut Grove, he is exhibiting at the Seeker and at Husicks Taphouse in Clarksberg. Joe has an online portfolio at: www.flickr.com/photos/joechanphotos

 

Amy’s Raspberry Truffles

TrufflesThis recipe for chocolate raspberry truffles was developed by Amy, daughter of Gary Guittard who owns San Francisco-based Guittard Chocolate Co. She created this recipe while testing combinations in the kitchens of Collection Etienne (honoring Amy’s great grandfather Etienne, who founded the company during the Gold Rush) while home on summer vacation from college.

She says raspberry is an excellent enhancement to either Collection Etienne 64% Cacao Baking Bars or 61 % Cacao Semisweet Chocolate. You can use either to make these truffles.

Comment: I made the truffles today. Super easy. Tasted the chocolate mixture and added a second tablespoon of raspberry preserves for a more fruity flavor, but be careful not to add too much and make the mixture too wet to role. The truffles were a hit at home and at work. Perfect make-ahead treat for parties and hostess gifts.

Note:

No baking. But truffles should be kept cool before serving. Chocolate melts at about body temperature.

Yield: 24 one-inch truffles.

Ingredients:

7 oz. generous 1 & ¼ cups Collection Etienne 61% Cacao Semisweet Chocolate wafers

¼ cup heavy cream

1 tbs. seedless raspberry preserves

½ cup finely chopped topping of choice to roll truffles in, for example: shredded coconut, sifted cocoa powder or powdered sugar, chopped nuts

Directions:

Combine chocolate, cream and preserves in small saucepan over very low heat, stirring constantly until melted and smooth.

Chill about 3 hours or until firm enough to handle. Alternatively, chill overnight and let stand at room temperature until soft enough to scoop.

Form into one-inch balls using a scoop or two teaspoons.

Roll between palms of hands to smooth out balls.

Use topping of choice to roll truffles in.

Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Find Amy’s new chocolate cookbook with her family’s recipes — old and new — from Chronicle Books at: http://www.chroniclebooks.com/titles/food-drink/baking-desserts/guittard-chocolate-cookbook.html

 

Grace and the People of Walmart

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He wiggles his fingers through the sole of his work shoes and suggests I take him to Walmart. He wants to buy a new pair before he busses the dinner shift at a neighborhood restaurant. Parenting adults is a tricky dance, I always check myself—am I helping or enabling.

I try to remember my dead husband, how he’d say with assurance that poet Kahlil Gibran said parents are the bow, children are the living arrows they send forth, and wonder why this twentysomething kid can’t go buy shoes without my help, why he can’t be a straight arrow.

He knows time is short before his shift starts, that Walmart is a quick drive away, but I’m on to his ploy. I tell him it’s busy on Saturday. I relent, stiffen myself for the people of Walmart, undoubtedly in full bloom on a holiday weekend.

I mentally prepare to run the gauntlet of morbidly obese shoppers blocking aisles with their carts, the disabled banking around corners in motorized chairs while holding Chihuahuas, teens mooning over engagement rings in the center aisle, transvestites with runs in their too-short pantyhose, middle-aged couples buying patio supplies and sex lubricant, children swaying an already broken birthday piñata. I park, my son struts ahead.

This time I don’t care about whether he’s embarrassed to be seen with me. I pick up the pace, find him in the work shoe section, way in the back. He can’t find safe-tred black shoes in his size. I reach up on tippy-toes, hand him down a pair. He tries them on.

I hold myself back from checking the toe room like when he was a child. They’ll do. We go to the check-out line snaking into ladies intimates. A woman with a mounded cart of merchandise signals us to go ahead, says, “If that’s all you’ve got.” My son, ever impish, looks over his shoulder says, “Come on, kids!” They laugh. I’m not amused.

While waiting, he strikes up a conversation with the woman in line ahead of him. He tells her he’s buying work shoes. She tells him her son works at Hot Wings in Chico, that he’s a student there. My son tells her it’s a great school, like he actually knows this.

He explains he’s just a busser, that he’s saving for a car. After the clerk rings up her order, she moves to the carousel of full plastic bags at the end of the counter, begins loading. My son asks the clerk how much for the shoes.

“They’re paid for,” nods toward the woman loading her cart to leave. She scurries away before he can say anything more than “thanks.” He helps me to the front doors because my eyes are blurry, tells me under his breath, “I think I need to go to church.”

I tell him: “You’re already there.”