Embracing Quirkiness: The Case for Airbnb

img_1268I carefully place my brown Eddie Bauer overnight bag on the floor, shake my backpack and purse from my shoulders, and look around. A litter box, which appears to be clean, is in the corner of the room. Dozens of framed photos of family members young and old hang above a long dresser. Heavy denim blue drapes obscure half of each of two windows on either side of the dark-wooded four-post bed, upon which is hanging, prominently, a rosary made of round lapis lazuli beads. I am to spend the night in the private bedroom of my Airbnb host.

It wasn’t supposed to go like this. I had reserved the guest room of this small, Oakland flat (the first floor of a renovated gray Craftsman owned by a sweet, widowed grandmother I had rented from before) but an emergency caused the prior night’s guest to need another night in the room. So the host made do by sleeping upstairs in the spare room of her son and daughter-in-law’s apartment, and I was to cozy myself up in my host’s own rosary-bedecked bed, her cat crying outside the door, clearly pissed at this rude and confusing interruption to the routine. A little weird, yes, but it was still better than a sofa in the living room.

I’ve since learned that this kind of quirky situation comes with the territory when using Airbnb. So do last minute cancelations from new hosts (which Airbnb does its best to remedy when they occur), overly eager, talkative, or nosy hosts (to be fair, they are letting strangers into their homes), and miscommunications about arrival and access to the space.

And yet, I still love Airbnb.

I’ve used it for more than two-dozen stays in the past two years. In addition to vacation rentals, I use it for overnight work travel from my hometown of Chico, California to the Bay Area three hours away, which is something I’ve been doing almost weekly for the last eight months. As a seasoned Bnb’er, I know what I want and can usually determine if a given room or studio is going to hit the mark. And I’m an Airbnb host’s dream guest: Female, professional, quiet, respectful, clean, conscientious, non-complaining, and leaves early in the morning for work. Typically you wouldn’t know I was there except for a damp towel and wash cloth hanging by the shower. I even pack out any large trash or to-go containers.

From Couch Surfing to World-Wide Empire

If you’ve never heard of Airbnb, it’s an online network (or to be fancy, a “peer-to-peer accommodation marketplace”) enabling people to rent out their residential properties for short-term stays. Hosts are charged a fee to use the system, which they can pass on to guests in the form of “service fees.” Most charge a cleaning fee as well. Both hosts and guests must have valid online Airbnb profiles and are rated for each stay.

Founded as Airbed & Breakfast (now the name makes sense!) in 2008 by Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, Airbnb is based in San Francisco. The concept was born out of the need for lodging for conference attendees of the Industrial Designers Society of America, and took shape as a way for people to offer untraditional lodging (i.e., their living room) for major events during which conventional hotels and motels were sold out. According to the Wall Street Journal, as of September 2016, the company was worth $30 billion.

Critics of Airbnb argue that the company is having a negative effect on communities in which a growing number of homes have become “full time” Airbnbs—in neighborhoods not zoned for this kind of occupancy—creating inflated home prices and displacing residents, among other impacts. The argument is not without merit; clearly, renting an entire home as a full-time Airbnb, provided that it is rented for much of the time, would net a property owner substantially more monthly income than a regular long-term rental. According to the website InsideAirbnb, which is critical of the company, the vast majority (nearly 74%) of Airbnb listings in New Orleans, for example, are for entire homes.

The system is now being used not only by private individuals trying to rent out a room in their primary or vacation home, but by online-savvy Bed and Breakfasts, property management companies, and other businesses to market their lodging. Before I became an avid Airbnb’er, I had occasionally used HomeAway (though I knew it by its former name, VRBO – Vacation Rental By Owner), which was founded in 2005 in Austin, TX, and which incidentally has begun using Airbnb to market some of its listings.

Whatever your opinion on the political, economic, and community ramifications of Airbnb (and I believe that they are real and policy makers should look carefully at them), from the perspective of a traveler, I will say that Airbnb is not for everyone. When I asked my brother-in-law, a tidy, gentle bookworm, if he would consider using Airbnb, an emphatic “ewwwww!” was his response. When pressed for fuller explanation, he added, “I don’t want to be in someone else’s house!” I can see this; there’s a strangeness in being among a stranger’s belongings.

And if you like the total anonymity of a hotel, including the freedom to throw shit around and not care how you leave the place (shame on you), then Airbnb is definitely not for you. On the other hand, if you are overly concerned with taking up space, and not messing anything up, then Airbnb may just cause you additional stress. A worldly and well-traveled tennis friend of mine, who is hitting her seventh decade on this earth in stride, recently complained of her stay at an Airbnb because she couldn’t get completely comfortable in what she felt was someone else’s space.

Parking Will Not be Guaranteed

There are some inconveniences, like parking. In the big cities, it’s not always available. I recently came to a more experiential understanding of the term “luggage” as I literally lugged mine up a steep hill for three blocks to get to my host’s third floor condo in Oakland after a long day of travel and work.

One of my first Airbnb experiences was a room in a home in Pleasant Hill that I found for my ceramicist hubby, David, and I to stay while selling his work at an art show. Street parking was frowned upon, and when moving our windowless cargo van into the designated spot (which we learned of only after already perfectly parking it in a non-designated spot along the narrow street), a slight tapping occurred to the neighbor’s jalopy parked behind us. So any money we saved in hotel fees on that trip was neatly stripped away and then some. The next morning, while still feeling lousy about the rear-ending, and just needing that first cup of coffee, we stumbled into the hosts’ kitchen to find them well into their morning and peppy as hell. They were nice enough, but it was all slightly uncomfortable.

So now I know to check into the parking situation ahead of time. And, unless price is a huge factor (and rooms inside homes that share a bathroom are the cheapest out there, other than “couch surfing,” which is also available), I always find a “Mother-In-Law unit” or “Garden Cottage” or otherwise private suite with its own bathroom, and if possible, it’s own entrance from the outside.

Why Then?

So for all the strangeness, potential inconveniences, and awkward social situations, why would anyone use Airbnb? The fact that you can find a space at a cheaper rate than most decent hotels is the obvious, but not entire, answer. It’s just more, well, homey. I don’t much like hotels—never did. The stiff white towels smelling sharply of bleach, the hermetically sealed bed sheets, the thin walls, the fake art, the freeway noise, the suspicious stains on the worn gray carpet, the creepy feeling that things might not be so clean and who the hell knows who has just slept and done whatever else in here!?

Things feel different at an Airbnb stay. First of all, the owners or managers are people you can see and meet. They have an online profile that they want to keep squeaky clean. For this reason, and often just because they like running a B&B, they try. Towels are often lush, bedding is soft, and there are a lot of extras like yummy-smelling liquid hand soap and shampoo, books, free wifi, guides to local restaurants and things to do, and snacks. And there’s another factor: it’s kind of interesting and, ok I’ll say it, slightly voyeuristic to stay in a stranger’s home. It feels like you’re getting a sneak peak at someone else’s life.

In an effort to get inside the head of your hosts without actually having to talk to them (the introvert’s biggest thrill), you can look through their available book selections. A fun game is to try and determine: are they liberal or conservative? A businessperson or an environmentalist? Christian, or New Age, or Intellectual? In an upscale mother-in-law unit in Montclair (the Oakland hills), the book selection included a large number of cookbooks, though the unit had no way to cook other than a microwave. Also included were Healing Crystals and Gemstones, the Handbook of Chinese Horoscopes, and Primary Care Medicine: Management of the Adult Patient. Not books I would assume go together. Plus, the latter being an odd choice for some light traveler bedtime reading.

Airbnb Commuting: Dos and Don’ts

San Francisco and Oakland are now among the most expensive places in the U.S. to live. Business Insider just listed Oakland among the top 10 most expensive cities in which to rent. This might explain the generous supply of rooms for rent via Airbnb in the Oakland, Berkeley, and surrounding areas that I identified in my search for the perfect once a week overnight stay. People are offsetting their high mortgages by renting out space.

After eight months of business travel Airbnb’ing under my belt, and I’ve learned a few things. The descriptions of the house, neighborhood, and residents are important. If you see words like “Historic,” “Victorian,” and “Colonial,” expect to enjoy interesting architecture, but also creaky floors, pocket doors that don’t close, two-inch gaps under the door of your not-so-private room, bathroom doors that don’t lock, and a lack of grounded outlets. It all depends on how much the home has been updated.

My desired attributes in an Airbnb stay can be summed up in the Three Ps: Price, Privacy,[1] and Parking. Safe, quiet neighborhoods are also important. Interesting architecture and eclectic furnishings are bonuses. Cleanliness goes without saying. And a word to the wise here: READ REVIEWS. If a listing has fewer than five stars, find out why. To provide a flavor of the typical Bay Area Airbnb experience, I kept a log of my first month of stays.

My Awkward First Time: Germans in the Kitchen

My very first Airbnb in the Bay Area taught me the importance of neighborhoods. This one was “in transition,” a euphemism for gentrification. Here you get a mix of beautiful three-story turn-of the-century homes, some run down, some fixed up, alongside mid-century apartment buildings with sheets covering the windows. But the transitional nature of this neighborhood was not necessarily the problem. It was the 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. trains that went by about one block away, but which, for all I knew, sounded like they were going to bust through the wall.

As is sometimes the case, this particular home was large enough to have more than one room being rented through Airbnb. I’ve found this set up to be less than ideal, if for no other reason than the multiple rooms typically share a bathroom (see my previously stated bathroom hang-ups). My room was large but centrally located, with ill-closing pocket doors directly off the dining room and attached kitchen. The other guests were from Germany, staying for over a week, and had pretty much moved into the kitchen. They would stay up late and chat in German with the homeowner, meaning I got to go to sleep when they did, and I didn’t even get the benefit of eavesdropping.

Historically Accurate

The second week I stayed in a rental that was described in the online profile as a “historical house.” “That sounds cool,” was my initial thought. This home, located on one of the steep side streets snaking up from Lake Merritt, where I work, was definitely convenient location-wise, but less so modern amenities-wise.

The staircase to my room was petrifyingly dark, narrow, and steep, with no handrail. I typically have my large overnight bag, my backpack with laptop in it, a purse, and a grocery/cold food storage bag.[2] This made getting up the stairs particularly treacherous. Also, the stairs were enormously loud. Every other step emitted a loud, long creak, which served to alert the two small dogs that lived at the house. They apparently were not included in the family meeting in which it was decided that opening up the place to travelers was a good idea. They were confused. They didn’t like it. So each climb up or down set off a new round of incessant barking.

This house, too, had more than one room for rent, and a shared bathroom. And that bathroom door not only didn’t lock, but wouldn’t latch, and therefore close, all the way.

My room, though, was spacious and lovely, filled with antique furniture. It contained no fewer than five doors. One leading in, two connected to separate closets, and two on either side of the bed that I was, frankly, too afraid to open. The window, one of those deals with the pulleys and counter weights common in old Victorians, would not stay shut. And it was getting cold. Next to the window was a large bookshelf filled with some great old classics. (These people had good taste in literature; I wondered if they were English professors. But I was shivering and didn’t have time to dwell on that.) I selected a few hearty-looking hard-bounds and wedged them end to end up the window to force it shut against the foggy Oakland chill.

Americana (and Jesus)

I briefly majored in anthropology as a college student, before switching to English. I realized my introverted nature made the idea of travel and having to talk to people extremely frightening, while learning about them in books seemed much more comfortable. So Airbnb can present a challenge for me. I have to move out of my comfort zone and chat with strangers. Sometimes this is hard after a harried day at work and a more harried time finding and parking at the designated venue. I’ve persevered and it’s generally been fine. But the introverted anthropologist (sleuth?) still lurks within me, and I learn a lot about my hosts from checking out their décor and their stuff.

On week three I was treated to a room in a home in which I have since stayed several times. The place is an old split level Craftsman that has been converted into two apartments. The downstairs one, where I stay, is home to a widow. Her son and his family live upstairs. The color scheme is navy blue, dark red, and cream. Lots of American flags, old crockery, things meant to resemble old crockery, framed needle point, and wooden signs suggesting the importance of family and prayer. Although I am not religious, I rather liked the comforting and calming messages. The host always gives me a giant hug when I return. I’m not a hugger by nature, but I’ve come to appreciate the caring that is conveyed through a sincere, loving hug.

The Human Habitrail

On the fourth week I decided to try something more outside the bustle of Lake Merritt. I found it in a little hilltop hideaway in a neighborhood called Oakmore, tucked into the bottom floor of a separated three-floor building occupied by two unrelated families. Finding it was somewhat challenging, as I tried to listen to my iPhone’s navigation device and negotiate tightly wound, narrow streets with beautiful but packed-in homes and cars on both sides. The streets were so narrow that the parked cars required drivers to err toward the center divide line, creating the effect of a one-lane road. This worked okay until a giant white FedEx truck came barreling around a blind corner directly in my path.

The place had an epic view of Downtown Oakland and the Bay, even from my bottom floor unit. The hillside sloped unrelentingly up behind the house, and my view of the Bay was partially blocked by the steeply pitched roof of the next-door neighbors below me. This so called “bottom floor” did not seem to be originally meant for habitation, but was more like an embellished crawl space. The ceilings were maybe seven feet high, and that’s being generous. The ceilings were so low that it took exactly 60 seconds for the forced air heat to become stifling. Efficient, yes. The narrow unit consisted of a bedroom, kitchen/dining area, office, second bedroom/t.v. room, and bathroom, all in a linear footprint about six to eight feet wide. This, along with the low ceiling, created the hamster habitrail effect.

But to make up for this, the place was wonderfully appointed, with an automatic, programmable, insulated carafe coffee maker, down comforter on the bed, fast wifi, a desk area with printer, and great water pressure in the shower. The deck and all the windows had the same stunning views. The host even left a Toblerone chocolate bar on the porch (see notes on food, below, definitely another check in the plus column for Airbnb).

“There’s Nothing Better Than a Bald Guest”

It takes a certain kind of person to open up a room in their home to travelers. Well, maybe several kinds of persons. For some, it’s a near desperate need for additional income. I spent an hour chatting with one host, a single woman in her late fifties who admitted she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to afford to keep her home, which had been her mother’s. The need for extra income is obviously a factor for most hosts, but some also thoroughly enjoy getting to know strangers…especially those from other countries (see Germans in the kitchen, above). As an introvert and boring old California native, I often feel as though I’m disappointing the particularly social host. “Um, ok well it’s been a long day so I think I’ll just go to bed now,” said by me at 8:05 p.m.

I asked the host of one of my regular stays via text message what she found most difficult about renting a room for short-term stays. Her answer was fast and unfiltered. “Hair.” What? “It’s nigh on impossible to pick up every one!” (She’s delightfully British, which comes across even in texts.) She added, half-jokingly, “There’s nothing better than a bald guest.” Since then I’ve taken to scanning her bathroom upon vacating, trying to wipe away at least the visible remnants of my DNA.

Competition is Good for the Consumer… of Food

As competition mounts as more people list their spaces, snacks and other kinds of food offerings seem to have become popular. At the room of the wonderful British lady who wages a daily war on hair there is always a croissant and a choice of multiple jams in the mini fridge, along with Walker’s Scottish shortbread cookies, to which I have formed an addiction.

David and I returned to the Bay Area recently to sell his pottery at another street fair. Our host was baking a dozen chocolate chip cookies when I arrived…for us. I thought this unusual but was not complaining.[3] As soon as I got to the door, she invited me to see the rest of her house and to sit out on the back patio, where she pumped me with questions and as often happens, I told her my life story out of nervousness. On our second night there, I got a text from her at about 1 a.m. that she had baked bread and left some outside our door. At that point I was somewhat creeped. The skeptic and fantasizer of horror movie scenes in me wondered, what was her ulterior motive? David surmised that she was just lonely. We’ll never know.

If you aren’t sure if this is a recommendation of Airbnb, neither am I. I still love it, both the concept and the reality. If you’re feeling that our current culture is dominated by the impersonal and anonymous, Airbnb could be another route to actual personal connection. It’s also, at least for the moment, still new and exciting, adding an element of comfortable adventure to your travels.

 

[1] Mostly meaning a private bathroom—for which you pay a premium. But if you’re like me and George Costanza, it’s hard to just “go” anywhere.

[2] Admittedly, this is a lot of carry-on for an overnight stay. Others could probably do it much more streamlined. I like to be prepared.

[3] I was raised to never leave free home baked goods, or chocolate, and certainly not the two combined, on the table.

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My Body: Judgement -or- Are Women Supposed to be Fat?

Girdles

I’m okay if I can still see a shadow under each cheekbone. I try to ignore my neck, which though slender and relatively long, in this light, is clearly wrinkling. And attached to the top of my neck and the bottom of my chin is this bizarre chicken flap that pulls and strains when I move my head. It’s the sack that alternately fills with fatty tissue or loses it depending on five pounds in one direction or the other. I’m not sure which is better, the empty swaying sack (affectionately dubbed “the wattle[1]”) or the double chin.

The wrinkled neck gives way to what I think of as one of my best features: My protruding collarbone and flat chest, which give me the illusion of thinness. I highlight these with sloping, generous V-necks, even when I am out playing tennis. And this, of course, will be my downfall. I’ve seen what the sun does to sun-lovers’ exposed chests: They become a mass of deeply crevassed, wrinkled, loose-hanging flesh. Tanned, yes, but so what?

I always wanted the lower half of my body to mirror the upper half. Long, slender arms and thin, if a little bony, fingers. Flat chest, long neck, small head. Gazelle-like elegance.

But instead I got the hips and ass and thighs of a Neolithic Venus goddess, a child-birther (which is of absolutely no interest or use to me). My mom’s hips. Her gynecologist told her, “You were born to have babies.” And still, she got a spinal on every one. They had to reach in and yank us all out because her numbed lower half, the half born to breed, could not flex a muscle. That was what we did in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Modern medicine and male doctors who know best can save YOU from the pain of labor! Pop out those pooches with time left to put dinner on the table.[2]

During the high-boot fashion craze a few years ago, I was trying some on in the cramped shoe department of T.J. Maxx. They wouldn’t zip up. Yeah, I got cankles. Thunder thighs. Saddle bags. And a butt that used to be bodacious but, let’s face it, has drooped a bit with middle age. I’m not sure how I ultimately figured this out. Maybe it was a dare, but yes, I have the honor of being able to cradle a water glass between my ass and the back of my thigh. It’s a great party trick. You should try it.

One thing I don’t mind is never having to worry about men staring at my barely A-cups. I have, though, caught them looking at my butt. Wow, you have to be really slack-jawed with drool forming at the corner of your mouth-oblivious to allow me to turn around and catch you before you look away. As in, “Um, my eyes are up here…way up here and on the other side of my body.”

Then I was told by my ex that every problem I had, from being a little tired to PMS to migraines had to do with those extra 10 pounds I carried around.

Body shaming, like most other shaming in my life, was brought to me at an early age courtesy of my family. My brother was particularly good at it, telling me that you could play connect the dots with my moles. Or that my chest looked like two mosquito bites.

One of my earliest memories is of wanting to play in the garden hose on a hot summer day with my two older brothers, and naively coming outside without a shirt. This was met with immediate objections and yells for “Mom!” to come make me put a shirt on. My mom explained that girls can’t do that, which of course, made no sense to me but I was forced to comply.

Some of my friends will say, “my God, woman, shut the hell up. You look fine!” But here’s the thing about Body Dysmorphic Disorder. It’s not rational. And it can result in destructive behaviors like anorexia and other eating disorders, themselves yet another source of shame. It can result in excessive exercise (to the point of injury), and self-mutilation (such as plastic surgery[3]).

Some people are blaming the mirror for our obsessive focus on how we look. I just learned that “Mirror Fasting” is a thing, in which people pledge not to look in the mirror for months on end. But the mirror isn’t entirely to blame. It’s the unattainable “ideal” of feminine beauty portrayed to us in movies, magazines, t.v. shows, and even the nightly news, combined with looking in the mirror at what is often far from the supposed “ideal.” Top models have, on average, a Body Mass Index of 16.3%. The World Health Organization says anything under 18.5% is underweight and malnourished. So then, in an annual national survey of teens, two out of three girls ages 14-15 say they want to lose weight. My god, I was a toothpick at that age…and I remember thinking I was fat. In fact, post-adolescence, I can’t remember not thinking that.

So I got lost down the rabbit hole of Internet research, and became fascinated with the images of American female beauty standards from each decade, starting in the 1910s. There were the extreme hourglass years in which some models look literally deformed, with generous breasts and hips and a waistline of about 18 inches. Then there were the Twiggy years of the ‘60s. Full body shots of Twiggy reveal an emaciated physique that reminds me of a skinny, knobby-kneed seven-year-old.

What does the image of a shrunken stick figure say to you? To me, it says weakness. Is this a subtle way of saying the ideal woman should be weak, has to be taken care of, can’t run away, and therefore is not a threat to men?

The truth is, women, with our inherent higher percentages of body fat, usually outlive men in extreme conditions (see Donner Party as Exhibit A). We are designed that way, so we have the capacity to carry little baby humans in our bellies. We have to be stronger. But instead of celebrating this life-giving strength and ability, it’s demonized, and we are left fighting a losing battle to remove the fat that is fucking supposed to be there in the first place! No wonder it’s so hard.

Luckily there are examples of strong women who are not the currently accepted physical “ideal,” and they are still embraced in the media. Melissa McCarthy and Amy Schumer come to mind, though a critique of their popularity could be that if you’re fat, you’d better be funny as hell.

So though I am still watching it, I am going to try and stop whining about it, and embrace those parts of my body that are big and strong. After all, a hard-hit tennis ball starts in the legs, does it not? That’s something I can use. I can even stroke my wattle as I ponder this essay. Helps me think. Even though I don’t want to have kids, I can still marvel at this superbly amazing thing that a woman’s body can do. And, that extra fat on the back of my thighs? That’s going to come in handy when the apocalypse hits (which, my bunker-building brother says, is any day now) because I just keep forgetting to stock up on canned food. So, you know, I think I’m OK.

 

[1] Wattle is one of those words that sounds about as appetizing as it looks, and so too are the words used to define it. My favorite is from Wikipedia, which says that wattle is “a fleshy caruncle hanging from various parts of the head or neck in several groups of birds and [middle-aged] mammals. A caruncle is defined as ‘a small, fleshy excrescence that is a normal part of an animal’s anatomy.’”… particularly if that animal is a slightly overweight, older adult with a genetic predisposition toward jowls (which, I’m not going to define, but you should know are something pigs have in addition to humans. Sadly, here, Google has a series of frowning human examples of jowls. Trust me, all frowning.)

[2] My mother was, in fact, in the process of cooking a Thanksgiving turkey on the day I was born. My grandmother later commented that it was the worst turkey my mom had ever made. Yes, helpful feedback in my family goes back generations.

[3] Did I just put boob jobs in the category of self-mutilation? Yes. Yes I did.

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The Awkward Hugs I’ve Known

awk-hug-1

I’m not the first person to write about hug awkwardness. I just read a Reader’s Digest column by humor writer Mary Roach on the subject, and life coach/self help writer Martha Beck describes a disastrous mis-hug with a client in one of her books. These stories strike a chord with me because I can be socially awkward, often fretting about how to get through social situations (including seemingly innocuous hugs and handshakes) without mistakes, and of course in overthinking it, I usually blow it.

I am not a hugger by nature, but I am happy to hug, generally, when someone else initiates it. And sometimes the hug gets botched – big time. Here is my list of the Top 10 Most Awkward Hugs:

  1. The Face Plant: This most often occurs when the two people engaged in the hug are of radically different heights. I’ve slammed my teeth or nose into the shoulders of tall huggers and likewise rammed my shoulder into the face of short huggers too many times to count. Neither of us ever mention it. I just smile, turn away, and run my tongue over my front teeth to check for looseness.
  1. The Sit-Stand: Recently I was finishing up a meeting when a male colleague of mine came in for the hug. He’s a frequent hugger so I wasn’t surprised, but my chair got stuck underneath me and I couldn’t pull it out in time, so I just grabbed him around the waist with one arm, my head on his stomach. “OK, this isn’t weird!” I think one of us said.
  1. The Letch-Press: So hugs among acquaintances of the opposite sex often seem weird to me. More so when that acquaintance, is, well, something of a letch. I worked with a man once who seemed to use the causal hug as a means of inappropriate closeness. After a meeting one day he hugged me and then wouldn’t let go. My arms had meanwhile dropped to my sides and I was basically just paralyzed in his 10-second grip. Ten seconds may not seem like much, but in casual hug years, it’s an eternity. You should not hug anyone for more than five seconds unless you are sleeping with that person or it’s a family member in the military who is being sent overseas.
  1. The French-Press: I have a friend whose husband is from France. To be fair, I am not entirely sure if this is a French thing, but when you greet him, he comes in not just for the hug, but the kiss, and not just a peck on the cheek. He goes for the mouth. The first time it happened, horrified, I was barely able to swing my head away to the left just in time to feel a warm, wet one on my right cheek. I’m still traumatized.
  1. The Full-Body-Press: Again, I am no expert on social interaction, but I’m pretty sure that hugs among friends and acquaintances should be upper body contact only. As the name suggests, a Full-Body-Press is just that. All parts touch. Not good.
  1. The Over/Under Arms War: This is when you attempt to hug and the other person tries to put their arm over your shoulder, while you’re simultaneously going over, so your arms collide. Then both of you switch to under at the same time, then back to over. Nervous laughter ensues. Repeat. It really takes all the fun out of the awkward hug.
  1. The Forceable Hug: This is when you force an extreme non-hugger into a hug. You know it’s a terrible violation of their personal space, especially when they recoil as you approach, your arms extended, their eyes widening in horror, but you can’t seem to stop yourself. “Oh, we’re doing this.”
  1. The Over-Exuberant Hug: This is when you accept that this hug is going to happen, even if it’s the last thing you want, so you overcompensate and latch on, squeezing for all you’re worth, like, “damn it, if I’m going to do this, I want it to mean something!” It’s an odd opportunity for me to press my admittedly boney and flat chest into other women’s generous, soft bosoms. I’m not trying to be the letch-hugger here but it’s always a mind-blowing experience. “Wow, you have those things. How amazing.”

The Over-Exuberant Hug reminds me of the same dilemma I’ve had in the few awkward religious activities I’ve found myself occasionally engaged in over the years. There’s that moment where it’s expected that everyone holds hands. So I’ll be standing next to some pasty-faced dude I’ve never met, and I guarantee you his hand is sweaty, and now I have to endure contact with his sweaty hand for possibly a minute (a lifetime in hug years) while someone says a prayer. I don’t want the pasty-faced guy to know how awful and uncomfortable this makes me feel, so I give his hand a meaningful squeeze, as if to say “this is great! I love that we are holding hands right now!”

  1. The Atta-Boy: This is the male-on-male half handshake/half hug in which one guy goes for the hug, while the other anticipated a manly, formal handshake. If you can’t get your hands out of the way quick enough, it becomes a handshake plus one-armed pat on the back.
  1. The “Let’s See How Far Apart We Can Stand and Still Hug” Hug: This is the opposite of the full-body press. Both parties must lean in and only the shoulders and arms lightly touch. This is typical of two extreme non-huggers who somehow were forced by social norms to engage in this massive violation of their spaces. It lasts for about 0.3 seconds.

And that concludes my catalog of awkward hugs. I look forward to engaging in some of these with many of you this holiday season.

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“At Least He Died Doing What He Loved”

PrintAbout eight years ago, I was writing grant proposals for a land trust on the North Coast of California. The Executive Director, who’s fiancé was a former river rafting guide turned realtor, took us on a team-building exercise of rafting down the South Fork of the Trinity River in spring. It was a Class III river in spots—nothing too daunting, but some fun, if chilly, rapids were in store. I’ve always loved being in the water so I was more than game.

My only complaint about the experience was unexpectedly having to change into and out of borrowed, ill-fitting wetsuits in front of our co-workers, including two rather good looking young men. I had planned on wearing cut-off blue jeans shorts over my bikini bottoms – my standard river swimming attire designed to hide my body’s favorite fat-storing regions. I think the worst moment was having to give back the wetsuits before our vehicle arrived from our put-in point with our dry clothes and towels. When it finally arrived I had to make the “march of shame” to the vehicle in nothing but my bikini and my ill-prepared (as in non) bikini-waxed aforementioned fat-storage/thigh region.[1] Who knows? Looking back this might have been a real turn on. But at the time and for years after, it was mortifying to think about.

While we were on the river, the Director’s fiancé talked about being a rafting guide. His worst experience was when a little girl fell out of the raft in a big rapid, and was actually trapped underwater for what was probably under 30 seconds, but would have felt like a terrifying eternity. But it was something else he said that has never left me. “Don’t do what you love for a living. It’ll kill it.”

I never thought grant writing for a living was necessarily “doing what I loved,” but rather, “doing something I’m good at, for which I get paid decently, and which (sometimes) results in some good in the world.” Not a bad deal. And for a while, it suited me well. That is, until a few years ago, in my late 30s, when I began to feel more and more dissatisfied. Now, in my 41st year, I still enjoy certain aspects of my work, but find myself less and less able to put up with the parts I don’t like: ridiculously complicated government grant applications, unrealistic expectations from clients,[2] or trying to write about a program I have no interest in and know little about, and yet somehow be able to inspire a funder to support that program.

And even when I am working with a client I love, who’s work I wholeheartedly support, I realize that good writing, no matter how easily that comes to you, is hard work. My brain is often not up to the task eight hours a day, or even six. I am looking around at what I can do that I actually love, or if that is not possible from a financial standpoint, then carving out time in my life to do what I love despite having to also log the hours doing what I must to get the bills paid.

I recognize that this quandary is one of a privileged nature. But that doesn’t make it any less real for those of us seeking—requiring—a life of meaning, creativity, fulfillment, and fun. And really, that should be all of us. In my perfect world, everyone would have enough money to support themselves and be able to practice and master whatever craft they chose, sharing that creativity and joy with the world.

It seems that everywhere I look, people of varying age and social strata are grappling with this issue. Some, like me, are directly acknowledging it and want to talk about it with anyone they can. A friend from high school who is an expert baker of gorgeous and clever cakes, cake pops, cupcakes, you name it (clearly a labor of love), is also stuck in a job she hates in order to support her family. Her Facebook posts about this are becoming more and more frantic. Some are quietly stewing about it, but their dissatisfaction with their lives nonetheless comes out, usually in the form of extreme grumpiness.

A recent case in point: the coffee shop owner who sullenly refuses to make eye contact, and rolls his eyes if your order takes longer than five seconds. I was trying to decide whether to go with whole-wheat toast or an English muffin alongside my scramble. I made a decision but I wasn’t one hundred percent in. After a moment, I said “whole wheat, I think.” At this point the owner had had enough. “You think, or you know?” he demanded with irritation. Images of Seinfeld’s famous Soup Nazi immediately came to mind. The last thing I wanted was to be turned away with no breakfast—and worse—no coffee. Theorizing that he doesn’t much like his job, I mentioned the scene to one of my writing group friends. Her first words were, “How could you be unhappy owning a coffee shop?”

My friend is a part-time instructor at two different community colleges, but is working on a cool murder mystery novel on the side (that is, when she is not commuting to and from two campuses or busting her butt grading sub-par or plagiarized essays from her less than enthusiastic remedial composition students or dealing with office politics, all while praying she gets hired again the following year to do it all over again). She admits that she loves her job, making all the crap somehow bearable. But she also spends her recuperation time at local coffee shops, hence the wistful longing for a sensual life surrounded by pungent roasted coffee beans, bacon and cheddar quiches, and blueberry scones.

I thought for a minute about the romantic idea of owning a coffee shop versus reality: The expense of all your young, self-absorbed baristas and other staff, and dealing with the public all day long and their annoying, self-absorbed needs (“I want a vanilla decaf latte, but only one pump, and don’t over-steam the milk, and it needs to be non-fat milk—oh actually do you have almond milk? You really should because…”).

Doing what you love can also be financially straining. My partner David has been making pottery for 25 years. He has honed his craft and now produces exquisite bowls, mugs, and vases. But because, though beautiful, they are utilitarian, they don’t count as “fine art” and therefore do not command the price tag that goes along with that moniker. He sells them at craft fairs and art shows around northern California. This used to be a viable method of making a living, provided that living didn’t involve cars less than 20 years old or roofs that didn’t leak (What? You want a perfectly dry ceiling? So picky!) But these days, it’s gotten downright impossible.

I’ve taken to accompanying David on his summer craft and art show circuit so that at least he doesn’t have to be the last, lonely vendor packing up pottery after the sun goes down. The shows go something like this: I sit in the shade of a pine tree on a park lawn, watching crafters set up for the Graeagle Arts and Crafts Fair in the northern Sierra foothills. There’s a dense circle of bear poop, about half of which consists of shredded plastic food wrapper, about 20 feet to my left. Directly in front of me stands a hot-pink Easy Up with a giant glittery banner that reads: “The Original ‘Ring Around the Toezies.’”

That’s right, this is not your garden-variety imitation custom fitted toe ring booth. This is the real deal. Woe to the pedicured foot that lacks a custom fitted toe ring. Behind me is the Graeagle Restaurant where the homestyle breakfast potatoes smell like onion soup mix (no, that’s not their tag line). Crafters young and old (mostly old), importers, and a few artists like David erect their booths, moving slowly and deliberately in the beating, late-afternoon July sun. They’ve done this a hundred times. Every year the profits are less but the workload’s the same. But what else are ya gonna do? “At least I work for myself” is the common refrain. The crafters ask each other, how was your show? “Pretty good” is the vague reply, said quickly, softly, in case the one who asked didn’t fare so well. Or, “not bad, not bad,” with a relieved nod. Or, “terrible” with a slight drop of the head. More and more often, it’s “not as good as last year.”

After half a life spent making pottery, David is realizing that the time in to money earned ratio is not cutting it, and schlepping and setting up heavy ceramic pots all over the place is not as fun as it used to be. (Plus, his partner is sick of driving around in old cars in which something else breaks every other week.) So he’s shifting to photography, and he’s great at it (in part because of his excellent artist’s eye, attention to detail, and perfectionism—but also because he loves it). Though starting a new business is a leap of faith, especially after age 50[3].

I think this is what keeps people from taking the plunge into “doing what they love.” Fear of financial failure—or fear of failure in general. If you fail at “doing what you love,” then what’s left? On the other hand, is that even possible? If you love it, and are doing it, then that’s success right there. It’s probably our accepted definition of success and failure that’s part of the problem. Ultimately, it’s not a requirement that we attempt to meld our money-earning activities with our passion and creativity. And maybe, as the river-rafter-turned-realtor surmises, it’s not even optimal. When you get the business side of things mixed up with the creative side, things can go haywire, and you may end up overworked and worn out, with a watered down product to boot.

For an example of a master craftsperson who got big and then downsized to find happiness, check out this little write up on Chico’s own local baker, Dave Miller (who I recently heard, is also featured in Michael Pollan’s new book, Cooked). I am inspired by what Miller’s done, and grateful I can buy his luscious whole-wheat sourdough bread each week at the Farmer’s Market.

I’m not going to end this with a commandment for you, or anyone, to quit their day job and lunge themselves chest first into their passion, in part because I myself haven’t mustered that courage, that faith. If I did, I’d plunge myself into creative writing and design—maybe publish my own magazine. But instead right now I’m doing just a little bit—“using it so I don’t lose it.” As another friend, also a writer, put it: “Give yourself an hour everyday to write. Don’t judge it. Just do it.” Sage advice.

Do something you love even if it’s just an hour a day. Surely we can all find a way to afford that.

[1] TMI? I apologize. More on this topic? See my piece on living the life…in the buff…at Harbin Hot Springs. [2] Including but not limited to: Providing the 17th round of micro-edits, scrapping a project at the 11th hour and starting over, and my favorite: “Can you write a 30-page proposal for this program we haven’t fully thought out and have no idea how to implement? It’s due on Friday.” [3] And now for a shameless plug: Hire us to beautifully capture your daughter’s wedding! Check out David’s web and Facebook pages for his striking portraits.

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If I Had Cleaned

Golden Orb spider wrapping prey, Kakadu National ParkDeath by spider would be a pretty tough way to go.

The thing is, they don’t actually kill you—not right away. They ensnare you in a sticky trap. Maybe only your left foot is caught, but caught it is, and in your jerking motions to disentangle, you not only make it worse, but you herald a giant, eight-eyed monster, rushing in quick as lightening. From where?

Before you know it you’re hit hard from behind, and spinning, wildly, woven tighter and tighter until you can just barely breathe. But breathe you do. Cruel. For now you are being carted off to some back alley crevice for no doubt more torture. You continue to jerk your arm muscles, futilely. They remain pinned to your sides as hopelessly as when your older brother would sit on you, hold you down, and merely threaten you with aggressive tickling, sending urine shooting down your pants.

Only peeing yourself is the least of your worries now. The end is frighteningly near. As you gasp and are about to attempt another, sadly weaker, wrenching—she is upon you.

Now, if I had cleaned my bedroom windowsill, none of this fascinating and harrowing scene would be visible to me. And, too, what is so bad about one less fly in the world?

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Sunny with a Chance of Tomatoes: August Notes from a Chico Garden

photoI inhale the smell of damp earth and acrid fermentation. I look down to see a giant, half rotten Better Boy centimeters from my right elbow, which is holding me in a modified plank as I stretch my arm up and through the wire fencing toward the prize: Big, ripe, succulent tomatoes hanging in giant, mocking clusters, in the very middle of what has become a fifteen by twenty-foot tomato thicket. I can’t get to them from inside the fenced garden because the plants are so monstrous. I’m crouching on the other side of the wire, bending it into arm-sized holes and reaching as far as possible with my left arm.[1] My right leg instinctively extends in the other direction, and suddenly I’m in yoga class.

Later as I’m halving the Early Girls for the food processor, destined for tomato sauce which I will freeze in saved plastic hummus and yogurt containers, I come across what looks from one side like a perfect specimen. That is, until I put pressure on it with the paring knife and it pops open, squirting pus that smells like (I imagine) a ruptured plague boil all over my shirt. It reminds me of my friend who works at a deli explaining how she can no longer even look at tomatoes, apparently after one too many experiences with horrifically rotten ones. Just talking about it makes her grow pale.

I’m living her worst nightmare. I try not to think too hard about the rotting material underneath the plants and all around me, turning white with mold in some places and black in others, and the myriad crawling insects saddled up to the bar.

Feeding insects was not on my mind when we first planted the vegetable garden (four rows of strawberries, three rows of tomatoes, and a row of peppers, basil, and some cucumbers). It seemed there was room enough. Things got off to a slow growing start and I was worried, but two months later it’s its own ecosystem. An overhead sprinkler rains down from above every evening at 7:30[2]. Beautifully speckled toads burrow under the edges of giant jack-o-lantern pumpkins (compost bin volunteers), and feed on the insects, which feed on the rotting leaves and whatever vegetables I can’t harvest in time. Dragonflies and moths and monarch butterflies dance and hum up above the canopy. Pumpkin spiders big as my thumb hang from dazzling webs, mummy-wrapping their daily catch.[3]

Not only is this display of the earth’s lifecycle right outside my window wonderful to watch, actually harvesting the food is perhaps one of the best things in life. It satisfies in a deep down way that I can’t even explain. I never get tired of it. I’m, in fact, kind of addicted to it. This may be because for most of the day, every day, for the past nearly 20 years, I have made my living by sitting at a computer and typing things. Nothing moves but my hands and fingers. Yes, it’s work. It accomplishes something. I raise money for nonprofits, which actually do things, from buying up redwood forests and preserving them forever to helping a child with Down syndrome be understood for the first time by his family and friends through an app on an iPad. But there’s something else deep in my soul that’s fed when I use my muscles to collect food that I will put into my mouth to sustain those very muscles.[4]

So I’ve been making time for gardening, cooking, and preserving in between my hours of computer work. I’m lucky in that I work from home, which makes this possible. It’s also making my work life just that much more bearable in the middle of this summer’s bounty. I reserved some of the tomato sauce I’d cooked down for freezing last night, and threw together an impromptu pasta dish with local Wookey Farms ground turkey (with more fat and flavor than the strange product you get in the stores), whole wheat rigatoni, black olives, fresh basil and oregano from the yard, a handful of our dried sungold cherry tomatoes, and grated Pecorino cheese.

This morning I collected two quart-sized plastic pots worth of cherry tomatoes, along with a gallon of Italian prune plums, which are starting to come on. The dehydrater is working its way through three more baskets of halved sungolds, and I’m keeping my eye on halved Sebastapols (a large, deep red cherry), brushed with local olive oil and dusted with sea salt, roasting on a low temp in the oven. My first attempt was with too hot an oven and one fateful half hour too long, resulting in little round, black, flattened packets. Inside of the charred outer layer however, was a rich, gooey red center with the consistency and flavor of pizza sauce. It’s worth another try to get it right. Vigilance is critical.

Perhaps my gardening joy sounds a little naïve or passé to those who have been doing this for a lifetime, or for whom farming is as much a part of life as getting out of bed every morning. I grew up in a suburb of San Diego, in a three-bedroom tract house that looked the same as every third house in the subdivision. Our small yard consisted of lawn, a back fence covered at first by pink climbing geranium (though eventually overtaken by ivy), a small, raised kid’s clubhouse in the side yard (inhabited by little greenish gray tree frogs every spring), and two dwarf fruit trees: a nectarine and a navel orange. At one point there were some spearmint plants allowed to grow, dangerously, in the far back corner. I don’t remember ever having a vegetable garden. I do remember picking and washing some of those mint leaves, carefully drying them on paper towels, and gingerly nibbling them in delight over their strong-flavored edibleness. I would pick tart berries off of the hedges in our neighborhood on my way to school, and suck the nectar out of honeysuckle flowers, which were true to their name, tasting like a sweet perfume. But the nectarines and oranges were particularly fun. The trees were probably not tended or pruned well, their production hit and miss. One year we had a bumper crop that required us to deliver grocery bags door to door to our neighbors.

So it wasn’t until I went away to college that I discovered gardening, and did it in one of the most unlikely places: in beds raised above sandy soil on a spit of land between Arcata Bay and the ocean about 95 miles from the Oregon border—a place where not even cherry tomatoes will ripen. But my boyfriend Phil and I managed to grow potatoes and peas and broccoli and dill. I canned my pole beans with dill and garlic. I spent student loan money and weekend hours buying soil and starts and tools and two-by-fours. It seemed to me then, as now, somewhat miraculous that one could grow things to eat in one’s very own yard.

But the years between my first foray into gardening and now were long and hindered by many short-term rentals where I never seemed to have the inspiration. And maybe too, it took the right partner. David is a natural-born green thumb. Last year at his mother’s farm in northern Sonoma County, we took home bushels of tomatoes. She just couldn’t keep up with picking them all (and I wondered if we’d ever have such a crop!). She makes cobblers and pies out of her orchard’s offerings: pear and apple and raspberry and strawberry and peach and plum. Not to mention wild huckleberries from throughout their 40 acres of reclaimed second-growth redwood forest, and blackberries picked out by her sister’s winery down the road. She and her husband pickle their small crop of black olives and make kimchi and fruit vinegars by the gallon. They have year-round greens and peppers in the greenhouse. Eggs from the laying hens and meat from the meat hens and any particularly ornery roosters (you are warned!), and even the occasional wild pig hit along a late night lonely stretch of Highway One. Then there are the wild mushrooms hunted and dried. A constantly busy and satisfying way of life.

Such joy to be a small part of this cornucopia (mostly in the form of eating it when we visit) and to find my own path toward a more sustainable way of life. So back to David. He is smart, unconventional, and motivated by figuring out how to get results on the cheap (my Jewish ancestors nod approvingly from above). He likes a challenge and is not afraid to just build things we need. I, on the other hand, am accomplished at pulling out my credit card and handing it to people. I typically need to be persuaded to his process and point of view. Initially skeptical, I usually end up capitulating in the face of proof… in this case, of thousands of sweet, ripe red gems of all sizes.

The garden started with the collection, up the hill in Magalia, of free horse manure.[5] This was a pain because it required cleaning out the van of pottery David takes to shows and driving up there and hauling the stinky mess back and then cleaning the van out again. But, free. The manure was spread on the plot cleared of Johnson grass, and then promptly covered in wetted wads of week-old Chico News & Reviews, (more free) followed by sheets of cardboard (also free), finally topped by a mat of straw about five inches thick ($7.00). Then the whole mess was given another good soaking. To plant, we simply cut holes in the straw. This process is called sheet mulching, or as my friend Carrie (an excellent gardener and cook) aptly puts it, lasagna mulching.

The plants didn’t seem to be growing well at first. I added a little fertilizer and then decided to plant double of everything just in case. Of course, everything eventually took off. In addition to the tomatoes we intended to plant—starts from Home Depot, the farmer’s market, a neighbor, and David’s mom—there came the volunteers, I suspect out of that sifted Chico horse manure, and well, they just wanted to live so…. That brought the total to 25. Who plants 25 tomatoes? That was three months ago.

So tomorrow will be another morning of downing my first cup, and heading out with my bucket and my knee pads, to do a little yoga underneath a canopy of interlacing vines dotted with endless red and orange balls, each one just waiting for my grasp.

 

[1] I discovered just how much bigger my right arm, due to nearly daily tennis playing, is in comparison to my left, when it got stuck painfully in the fence during one of my early harvesting expeditions…an activity David now refers to as “tomato spelunking.”

[2] Yeah, I know we are in a drought. So shoot me. The almond farmers are bringing in record-breaking yields of their thirsty produce this year, and I’m supposed to let my hard-won homegrown food shrivel?

[3] OK, that’s not quite accurate. There were pumpkin spiders big as my thumb. That was literally a line I couldn’t cross, and if I hadn’t gotten David to relocate them, all of the tomatoes would be rotting on the ground.

[4] Cooking, too, is an activity I love, which takes me into a whole other realm of work…that very basic and ancient work of nourishing ourselves and others by taking ingredients, mixing them up in various forms and amounts, and applying heat, which through some miracle transforms them into something completely different than how they started. Cooking is an ephemeral art, always consumed, and always to be done again, the more intricate recipes like Tibetan sand mandalas destined to be wiped clean upon their completion.

[5] And some purchased from a friend with a farm and former daycare here in Chico, whose manure pile was quite possibly the most fertile, but also the most challenging, as it had to be screened. Out came everything from rocks to screws to Legos and other tiny toys. We’ve saved a small plastic elephant and a Lassie dog, which are sitting on our kitchen windowsill. We call them Poo Friends.

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My 10-Day Silent Meditation Retreat (yes, me)

Vipassana-Meditation-Goutama-Buddha-1“Where are the goddamn bananas?

It’s Day Nine and apparently we are now out of bananas. My breakfast for the last eight days has been oatmeal with raisins and bananas and a cup of black tea. This, followed by a light vegetarian lunch, and a couple of pieces of fruit for dinner, was all I ate each day for 10 days at a Vipassana meditation retreat center 30 minutes outside of Yosemite.

In early February 2012, four months into our relationship, my partner David and I went on a silent meditation retreat. As with all things both scary and hard, yet ultimately beautiful and maybe even life-changing, it’s often better NOT to know exactly what you are getting into ahead of time. And so it was with my journey into the interior spaces of my mind and body.

OK, so my reaction to the banana shortage was not a good example of how (or whether) I’d internalized what we had been learning those past nine days about the true nature of the universe: that change is the only constant, there is no “I,” and reacting to sensations with either aversion or craving is not only pointless, it will keep you suffering. But in my defense, a regimen of speaking to no one, no eating past noon, no outside reading material, and 11 hours a day of meditation (beginning at 4:30 a.m.) is not as fun as it sounds.

I had wanted to get into meditation for years, but could never seem to hack it. All of the times I tried, I either got bored or distracted by the numbness in my lower extremities due to my lousy attempt at the lotus position. I typically lasted 15 minutes. When David mentioned the 10-day Vipassana meditation course, and how life-changing it was for him, I thought, “This might just be what I need.” I noticed later that he never really gave me any details about the course itself, a fact I would repeatedly laugh and curse over in the days ahead.

Day One: We arrive at the Center on a Wednesday afternoon and it is beautiful, quiet, and serene, with live oaks, rocky outcrops, and lighted paths along a pond to and from the dining hall, meditation hall, and residences. I would come to know the path, a full loop that took about 15 minutes to walk, very well. I said goodbye a little too quickly to David, again not fully realizing how difficult it was going to be spending 10 days without speaking to him, touching him, or even making eye contact.

The Center has strict rules to create the most conducive environment for intensive introspection with few distractions. And this is absolutely necessary, as the mind itself already provides more than enough distractions on its own. For nine out of the ten days we were to practice “Noble Silence,” which means “silence of body, speech, and mind,” in which no communication—verbal or non-verbal—is had with any other meditators at the Center. Other rules included no alcohol or drugs, and no eating after noon. For new students, an exception was made in which we could have fruit during the 5:00 pm tea break. I grew a great fondness for my Darjeeling black tea with honey and soymilk. And I found that I was rarely hungry, even though I only took a normal-sized portion of food at lunch, and only a half of a banana and an apple for “dinner.” Granted, it doesn’t require too many calories to sit in a dark cubical for 11 hours a day, with the occasional stroll around the pond thrown in, but I had an epiphany about how little I really need to eat.

As a participant I had to agree to five major precepts. They were:

  • Abstain from killing any being
  • Abstain from stealing
  • Abstain from all sexual activity
  • Abstain from telling lies
  • Abstain from all intoxicants

I like how the word abstain is used for all of these, as if killing and stealing might be OK in other contexts, or later on after we leave.

Also, we were not allowed to bring any reading or writing material into the course, nor could we have cell phones or any contact with the outside world. And we had to stay within the confines of the Center. The parking lot, where my iPhone sat locked in my Prius, was completely off limits. I had no problem following any of these rules except one: I smuggled a tiny writing pad in along with a pen. Then I had to lie about it when the registrar asked me point blank if I had any writing material with me. (Weird, why did she choose to ask about that? Obviously she could peer through to my soul.) Already I had broken two rules and the course had barely started.

Then there was the admonition, which I (for one) took to heart, of “inappropriate clothing,” including shorts, sleeveless or low-cut tops, tank tops, transparent, tight, or otherwise “revealing” clothing. The rules for “modest dress,” as outlined in the Code of Discipline booklet, indicate that clothes should be “simple, modest, and comfortable.” So being a good student, I brought only sweat pants, avoided my much more flattering form-fitted sweaters, and instead brought my old boxy Patagonia fleece….and left my hair dryer at home. So each morning when I dragged my frumpy, flat-headed, pale, puffy-eyed self into the meditation hall, it was extra annoying to confront the several willowy gypsy girls with perfect hair and pretty swaying skirts and leggings, shawls, and not particularly loose-fitting tops. Umm, might we level the playing field here, just a little? Looking back, I see that being one of the few “frump girls” was probably another lesson in letting go of ego. I failed.

On Day Two I am still hiding my pen and notepad in the top dresser drawer underneath my socks and underwear like it’s some kind of contraband. Day Two feels good to me. I am taking things slow–minute by minute. This course is like training for long-distance running. I tell myself to start slow and build. Don’t be impatient with slow progress. Any progress is good. This is long-distance meditation.

I find that the morning meditation–from 4:30 to 6:30–is some of the hardest for me. Sans caffeine, my body and mind feel tired and I keep falling asleep. But then I find that meditation at other times of the day is nearly as difficult. The best time seems to be in the meditation hall. Something about the 100 other people in close proximity, sitting like stone statues inside their shawls and blankets, keeps you honest. The other great thing about group meditation is that it follows breakfast, lunch, and most importantly afternoon tea, which gives me the familiar strength of a caffeinated mind and body. After downing my sweetened black tea I would march into the meditation hall, cushion under my arm, and swing open the door ready to kick some meditation ass!

…Which is weird. It’s like rushing through the airport, lining up at the Southwest gate, and racing for a choice seat on a cramped plane, followed by hours of just sitting there. But unlike the airport, the atmosphere of the meditation hall is dark, quiet, and soothing. It resembles a giant six-grade sleepover. Surrounding the meditation mats that were initially arranged in organized rows equidistant from one another were now mountains of blankets, cushions, and pillows of all colors and shapes in everyone’s quest for comfort.

I tip toe to my spot, on the upper middle, left-hand side, one row back from the front and one row in from the edge (which was really just a wide aisle down the middle of the room separating us from the guys). As quietly as possible I kneel down and place my meditation stool under my rump, with my legs folded underneath, and arrange my blanket over my lap. Staving off the cold was a constant need. Even the slightest finger of winter air under the blanket was an added distraction I didn’t need. After securing my blanket I did a physical check. “How do my legs feel? My ankles? Is the stool cutting off circulation in my thighs?” After more adjustments, I finally remove my glasses, close my eyes, and wait. Eventually the deep, rumbling voice of Goenka, our teacher, comes over the speakers. He beginnings with chanting, and then after a brief pause, gives us our instructions in English. There’s lots of repetition, and it at times gets monotonous, but for me, being a newbie, I was attentive.

Finally the instructions are over and it’s just me. Me and 100 other people in a dark room, eyes closed, focusing inward. Focusing on breath. From my prior attempts at meditation, I knew it was pretty hard, so I kept my expectations low. Each time my mind wandered, I brought it back. It wandered. I brought it back. I focused on the flow of air in and out of my nostrils. There was that point, somewhere along the way, when I could no longer feel or sense where my face ended and the air around me began. My head felt like a balloon, gently swelling out and getting bigger and bigger, as if filling the room. It was like the scene in I Heart Huckabees where Dustin Hoffman is showing Jason Schwartzman how there is no separation between anything, and their faces begin to disintegrate into smaller and smaller boxes floating around the screen.

Day Three is turning into my crap day. I can’t get comfortable either on my stool or sitting cross-legged. My mind is hopelessly wandering. I am fidgety and distracted. Then I worry if this is all worth it. Am I getting out of it what I am supposed to? Will I emerge from this 10-day workless, money-earningless, boyfriendless purgatory with a life-changing spirit and strength? Does the fact that I broke the rules and am writing about my experience, during my experience, and therefore perhaps not getting the full experience, mean that I won’t attain enlightenment when my days here are up? Probably. I’m pretty sure there’s a disclaimer to that effect somewhere in the literature.

Day Four is Vipassana Day. I didn’t realize this, but the meditation we were practicing the preceding four days, called Anapana, was not actually the meditation we came here to do. It was all prep work. The next six days will be spent practicing Vipassana, an ancient meditation technique involving mastery over the mind. Specifically the idea is to quiet the mind such that you are able to concentrate on sensations across and within your body, everything from the breeze brushing a hair across your nose to the way your legs are falling asleep as you sit in a half-lotus. But ultimately you move beyond these “gross” sensations to the finer ones. And these finer sensations – sort of like pulsations or little vibrations that occur everywhere inside and outside of your body – these are simply molecules. The molecules that make up all of us, the air around us, and everything we think of as separate from ourselves. Once you actually feel these molecules moving around, doing their thing, you realize that no, we are not separate. We are simply one part of the whole. Every molecule is like every other molecule, whether it’s what I think of normally as “part” of my body or not. And this realization is what can also be called Enlightenment. As Goenka says, it must be felt…experienced…to be fully understood. We can intellectualize it forever, but it won’t be real for us until we experience it. And if you don’t get it, you continue to live in misery, dissatisfied with life and life’s disappointments.

There are ways to “get” this experience other than meditation, though I am not sure I’d recommend them. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist, experienced a massive stroke in her late 30s, which essentially shut off the left half of her brain—the intellectual half. The half that’s in charge of language, judging, ordering things. The half that tells me these incomplete sentences are bad. The half that tells us we are separate from everything else. This sense of separation, while being an important part of getting around in the world, is also an illusion. While the stroke was occurring, Taylor reports in her fascinating book, My Stroke of Insight: “…I had lost touch with much of the physical three-dimensional reality that surrounds me. My body was propped against the shower wall and I found it odd that I was aware that I could no longer clearly discern the physical boundaries of where I began and where I ended. I sensed the composition of my being as that of a fluid rather than that of a solid.” She goes on to note that “those little voices, that brain chatter that customarily kept me abreast of myself in relation to the world outside of me, were delightfully silent. And in their absence, my memories of the past and my dreams of the future evaporated.” In other words, she was experiencing being in the now.

So Day Four is when the meditation hall becomes extremely quiet. We are now to practice the code of “Strong Determination.” That means that, for the three mandatory hour-long group meditations, you are to hold your poster—without moving anything—for the entire hour. Prior to today, the hall, though quiet in relation to most places, was still an echo-chamber of endless rounds of sneezing, nose-blowing, coughing, throat-clearing, rustling, sighing, and sometimes snoring. It was winter and many people around me had a cold or worse. But today! Miraculous what a little mind control can do. Nothing! No movement. No sound. Barely even a sneeze. I felt a few crop up myself and realized that if I focused, I could make each one go away.

One thing I could not seem to control, however, was the overwhelming urge to swallow, over and over again. Because it was so quiet, I know my nearest neighbors could hear my dry, gulping swallows. Then, it seemed, they began swallowing too! I could faintly hear other people gulping saliva beyond them. I think I was responsible for a chain reaction of sympathetic swallowing that may have gone the length of the room.

Day Six: I am starting to get a feel for this monastic life. I have felt very little desire to know what is going on in the “outside” world. The gong’s chime awakens us, calls us to meals, and most importantly to the meditation hall, into which we quietly file, each of us crossing the foot paths, heads slightly bowed, steps soft, in silent introspection. It reminds me of a drawing on an old 1940s copy of Jane Eyre that my mom had, that I used to look at as a kid. It was of all the girls of the orphanage, all identical, all in a line. Walking. Silent.

The Soundtrack: The Center is blissfully quiet, except for some light construction noise during the week as they continue work on the new Pagoda, and unfortunately since we’re in southern California, there are way too many jet planes, though they are high in the sky. The relative quiet lends itself to a running soundtrack of songs I can’t shake loose. Among them:

Mind Games – John Lennon

Minute By Minute – the Doobie Brothers

Two songs off k.d. lang’s new album I recently bought: Heaven and The Water’s Edge

Let the Sunshine In from the musical Hair

Stay – Alison Krauss

Just When I Needed You Most –1970s one-hit wonder Randy Vanwarmer (I have no idea why)

Don’t Worry, Be Happy – Bobby McFerrin

Good Vibrations – the Beach Boys

Storm Comin’ – The Wailin Jennys

Madman Across the Water – Elton John and Bernie Taupin

I, Me, Mine – the Beatles

Day Seven: Sitting in the meditation stool is becoming my personal torture chamber. My legs, bent underneath it, begin pulsating in anger, then give way to numbness after 30 minutes, only half way through the sometimes agonizing hour-long group meditations. The muscles in my lower back groan with a dull, penetrating ache. We are learning to “just observe” these things, and not react to them. I’d like to observe a Laz-e-boy recliner right now. I think about the lucky bastards that bailed on the middle of the room and have lined themselves up along the precious little wall space in the back. I fantasize about relaxing my shoulder blades into a pillow propped against a blessedly solid surface. Then I think, “buck up Tempra and quit your whining!”

I somehow thought getting past Day Six and over the hump would be a milestone, and would feel good. But today is proving a bit tough. My old impatience has returned. Now on my third day of practicing Vipassana meditation, I want, of course, Results! Success! Nirvana! Oh yes, it’s completely appropriate to think that a Westerner who’s never meditated in her 38 years is going to “get” an experience within six days. It is said to take at least 30 days of continuous, all-day practice in India. So, I try to settle down. I try to calm my mind. I start to repeat, “patience and persistence…patience and persistence,” until I realize I am using it as a mantra (another no no in this practice). Damn, a mantra would be nice. It’s hard to be alone, and cold, with nothing but your spasming mind (and back) to keep you company.

Days Eight and Nine: I become somewhat consumed with the desire for the retreat to end. I’ve hit a wall and I am done. Being without David is a near constant agony. There are moments where I let it go, somewhat, but for most of those last couple days, the experiment is over.

Day Ten: Finally we are allowed to break our silence, to mingle, and I find David outside the dining hall, reading boards full of information and literature about this practice. We cannot have physical contact, but being near him is ecstasy. We talk nonstop for two hours until it’s time for lunch. The dining hall is filled with laughter and talking, and it’s nice to be able to commune a little. We made it! The drive home, though it’s more than a four-hour drive back, feels like about 45 minutes as David and I can’t get enough sharing and talking. In some ways, this process was like a spiritual honeymoon for us, a stepping off into the world and our new life together, on the right foot.

Epilogue: On Patience and Practice

Did anyone, anywhere, ever get good at something without practice? Lots of it?

I am beginning to wonder if this is not at the root of many of my problems. It’s been two years since the meditation retreat. I had returned fully intent on keeping up the practice for an hour twice a day…or at least once a day…or at least 15 to 30 minutes here and there. I now have to admit to my sorry ass that I have meditated…exactly four times…in two years.

I have some difficulty keeping a practice of anything other than work, tennis, my daily to do list, and my coffee habit. These aren’t bad things to make a practice of. But there are so many others I keep saying I’ll work into my daily routine: creative writing, yoga, cardio, gardening, even reading…and of course, meditation.

In the meantime, in September of last year, S. N. Goenka, the main proponent and teacher of Vipassana meditation, who’s voice and image on video had taught me during the 10-day retreat, died at age 89 in Mumbai. This discovery gave me the opportunity to read more about Goenka, and his life. He was a successful businessman in Burma until he sought relief for serial migraines. Nothing seemed to help until he began studying Vipassana meditation. He eventually gave up his business and became a student, then teacher, of Vipassana, which is now practiced around the world.

His life, teachings, and my experience at the retreat continue to inspire me. David and I are currently on another adventure: a 60-day challenge of daily exercise and limited carbohydrate eating. After Day 20, I am feeling great, have lost weight, and realize that, indeed, I can make a practice of anything with just a little encouragement, patience, and a “strong determination.” What practice are you inspired to do?

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