Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks

You can stave off a midlife crisis by following this tried and true advice. Want to turn back the years stay lean and mean, learn something new? How about Downward Dog? Yep, yoga for the flexibility impaired. Never mind that even as a two-year-old, I could never touch my toes. And I have no balance. Though in my mind I define myself an athlete, my body would disagree. I no longer have muscle, so how can they be toned?

During my first yoga lesson, I got stuck. I kept hoping that my instructor would demonstrate an animal or plant shape that I could will my body into. On my belly, back arched, shoulders off the floor: Cobra. Don’t think so. I hate snakes. Hands over head, one foot bent onto knee, balance on one leg. Nope don’t make a good Tree either. Feet and hands on floor, head back, arch back. Bridge, un uh…not for me.

The tenets of yoga insist – go at own pace, never compare yourself to others. I couldn’t help noticing that I was the only salt n pepper haired participant in the group. While young supple bodies around me twisted into pretzel shapes, I remained locked in place like The Tin Man. I peeked at everyone else gracefully posed in a perfect posture, and felt like a loser. It’s hard for old athletes to quit competing.

I still have the ball player build, long and lanky. Ever see a tall Yogi master?Most yogis have the short compact build of gymnasts, not basketball players. Makes sense, the closer to the ground you are, the easier it is touch Mother Earth. My former head of department, a dance specialist, told me 85 % of flexibility is inherited, so we can only improve on that 15%. Go ahead, like everything else, blame it on your parents. It’s genetic.

Remember Gumby? Well I am not Gumby.

My spine has been broken, my feet deformed. My second toes are longer than my big toes, so I clutch land with hammertoes. Just staying upright is challenging. Like a monkey, my crooked toes curl and cling to edge of the yoga mat.

Inhale. Exhale. Right leg back. Inhale. Left leg back. Downward Dog. Exhale Plank. Inhale Cobra. I am sweating, and gasping, and my muscles are trembling and we just started saluting the sun.

The best part is at the end of the lesson. When we finish the session, we lie flat on our back, feet splayed; hands at our sides in the corpse position. Yep, I like this one. I make a good dead body. Only my inhalation and exhalation remind me I am still of this earth. After class, I stand, bow, and float out the door as if otherworldly.

Forget improvements in flexibility, balance, strength, and endurance, at fifty something, I am grateful that I can still breath. I am a good breather. Inhale, exhale. Ommm

I still can’t touch my toes, twist my body into any shape, animal or otherwise, and I am far from enlightenment, but I am starting to feel good about myself.As someone who confuses left from right, north from south and is always lost, the yoga mantra is appealing, “wherever you go, there you are.”

Carpe Diem

As usual, I was moaning about my students, my lumbago, my work load and then I almost lost my bro. Dick was a dead man walking with 99% blockage of not just any old blood vessel, but of the Widow Maker, left anterior descending coronary artery, so named because if the artery gets obstructed the result is usually the Big One, sudden death.

The doctor said that my 54-year-old brother in law has the heart of 70-year-old man and wonders how a man who lives so right, could have a cardiovascular system so wrong. Dick, a non-smoker, exercises daily and eats veggies grown in his own garden. Good habits. Bad genes. His dad died at a massive heart attack with no warning at age fifty-four. Dick’s only warning was strange pain in the neck.

Dick, cheerful, outgoing, athletic, is a wonderful husband and father, a soccer coach, and businessman, who loves the outdoors. He’s always the first to do someone a good turn for no ulterior motive. He donates gallons of blood, gives his Christmas check to the underprivileged and contributes to church and community service projects. A good man.

He’s the kind of guy who takes a thousand pictures of his nephew’s first U.S. college ball game, to capture one perfect shot, so that Nic’s parents in Switzerland could feel a part of that milestone. The guy that buys his in-laws (he named Outlaws) goofy gifts like matching shirts with gaudy fish patterns. That drives 500 miles to surprise a friend. That never forgets a Mother’s Day.

When my sister, Karen, called to explain the crisis, the only time she broke down was when she said, “I would have been lost without Nathalie by my side.” Our daughter, Nat, in her last year of Medical School, moved into Karen and Dick’s basement to help defray expenses. Nat was working ER at the hospital where Dick underwent emergency surgery. Dick, a man of great faith, knows God was watching over him. And Nat was at the right place in the right time doing what she was born do – console, comfort, guide – people through the perils of the medical world, that other planet where they communicate with doctor-speak, another foreign language.

Last week, Dick comforted Nat after a tough day when she came home distraught, after they tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate a Code Blue baby in a case of child neglect. This week, Nathalie held my baby sister’s hand when the cardiologist explained her husband’s alarming test results and requested his living will before the procedure.

Forty-eight hours later, Dick is home with a stent restoring the blood flow to the heart. When people call to wish him a speedy recovery, he doesn’t lament the diseased heart, medical bills, or pills for-the-rest-of-my-life regime; instead, he rejoices in the miracle of being alive.Ever positive and upbeat he tells you, “I guess God still needs me here on earth.” As do his wife, daughters, mom, sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews, in laws and out laws, neighbors and friends.

In the aftermath of almost losing a loved one, we face our own mortality. Dick inspires us; he always lives each moment as though it may be his last. With a broad grin, The Dead Man Walking wraps you in a bear hug and shouts his motto, “Seize the day, Sista!”

Don’t breath on me !

Everyone in my school is some state of the verb sick, as in, was sick, is sick , or will be sick.   No kidding. One third of our students are absent .  The remainder are in some state of sickness past, present or future.  Since swine flu hit Switzerland, I am afraid to breath.
Kids come to my lesson a)  feeling sick  b) having been sick  or c)  imagining being sick.
I follow school protocol and send students  to the nurse.  She sends them home.  Forty-eight hours later, Mom sends them back to me.  
« Why did you come back to school if you were sick ? »  I ask.
They answer because, a) I was bored ,  b) I didn’t feel sick after I got home or c) mom had to go back to work
So much for quarantine. 
Each day I walk through the halls dodging bullets. Students cough into their elbows and sneeze on my keyboard.  I washed my hands so frequently, I erased my fingerprints.  After all the hype, I wish I would get the flu to get it  over with. 
Everytime I turn on TV, I hear about another outbreak with terrifying fatalities in some part of the world. Not to make light of a  serious situation, but somebody is always dying somewhere.  Before CNN, we never heard about it.  
When your immune system is wacked-out like mine, you no longer fear getting sick.  Illness is part of your daily life, so as my British colleagues say, « you just get on with it. » Granted people have died from H1N1, yet people perish from the seasonal flu without all the pandamonium. I adopted a fatalistic approach. I have a poor track record as far as illness.  I have been sick every November for the past decade. That said, I listen to my body.  I am the only person on the planet that sleeps ten hours a night and eats the daily recommended one dozen servings of fruits and vegetables . 
Is the threat real or media hype ? News is so sensationalized no one believes journalists anymore.  No one believes the government either, no matter what country you live in. If the  H1N1 vaccination is so important then why are the medical professionals balking  about receiving the jab? According to my Swiss doctor, an immunologist, the flu, itself, is safer than the vaccination.  He  believes that the mafia is manipulating pharmaceutical companies  and behind all drama.
The French health minister announced 16 new deaths last week and urged people to get vaccinated, but no lines are forming at flu prevention centers.  Journalist have been crying wolf about the flu pandemic since  its outbreak  last March, so when it hits one’s neighborhood, people are blasé.
Go ahead listen to the authorities, get the jab, wash your hands, wear the mask, or try my foolproof advice.  Don’t breath until May.

A Word A Day Keeps Doctor Away

I subscribe to A. Word. A. Day, though anyone who never deletes messages and regularly receives warnings, “your mailbox is full, you may no longer send or receive mail “ has no business collecting more words. But there are too many wonderful expressions out there.Like the word that flashed on my computer screen today. Nihilarian comes from Latin, nihil, for nothing, and means one who feels their work, is useless. Like it sounds, this word is hilarious, so LOL, which in SMS speak, means laugh out loud, (not love a lot, like I thought.) Great word. Describes my life.

Probably depicts your life too especially if you work in business, government, military, or education, like me. Unless self-employed, like it or not, we are cogs in the machine. My medium, education, epitomizes bureaucratic redundancy. Bureaucrats love to develop new theories and adopt new strategies. It makes administrators feel creative.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in education. No one loves the double speak, gobbledy gook, psycho babble more than school officials who pontificate on how to learn, what to learn and what constitutes knowledge. Consequently every so often, educators worldwide are obliged to rewrite the curriculum, so that it can sit on a shelf for the next decade until it is time to pass accreditation again.

At our last staff meeting, gearing up for our next accreditation, our director urged us to sign up for horizontal and vertical assessment teams. Horizontal squad? That’s for me, I thought, slumping in my seat, eyes at half-mast, nodding off.

In the education factory, caught up in the frenzy of curriculum, reports, assessments, accreditation, and accountability, I wonder what happened to the good ol’ days when all we did was teach? I spend more of my waking hours in meetings and in front of computer screens diagramming and documenting data, than in contact with kids.

The school system offers a parody of real life. Committee membership reigns over thought processes.A famous French leader, De Gaulle, coined the adage, “Want to bury a problem, form a committee”. Politicians taught us that.In the USA, we can also thank government for No Child Left Behind legislation, which as any teacher knows, is still wreaking havoc in our public school systems.

Schools offer a smorgasbord of committee choices.Strategic Planning Assembly. Campus Development Group. Ecology Awareness Association.Pilot Program for Global Responsiveness.And now our new Horizontal Assessment Team.

Alas in an era where technology makes us slave to machines and human contact is at a all time low, at an age when the food we eat, air we breath, and water we drink can be hazardous for our health, words remain a harmless indulgence. A word a day dropping out of cyberspace for free is a mini gift for our minds. When the drudgery of your job gets you down, google Wordsmith.org. for an environmental-friendly, safe, cheap chuckle a day.

The Paper Pack Rat

I am an obsessive-compulsive word saver. I keep anything printed. I own more books than the local library. My favorite authors’ ‘chef d’oeuvres’ are triple stacked on shelves lining my home’s hallways. So many guests have been knocked out en route to our restroom that I posted warning signs. Proceed at your own peril. Beware falling books!

I have file cabinets loaded with newspaper articles from the 70’ and 80’s and binders filled with columns, articles, books, screenplays and other half-baked ideas. My musings are stacked from the floor to ceiling in every corner of our house

Semi annually, I make a pact to get organized and head to nearest stationary store with best intentions. I buy cartloads of color coded folders and dividers, but never file a single story. Where do I begin? Consequently, I now have shelves filled with a lovely assortment of empty organizers in rainbow colors.

Worse yet, I also save every warm-hearted letter, card or poem anyone ever wrote me. My inspiration shelf is covered with kind words penned by family or friends.

If only I had confined my vice to the home front, I could cope, but my malady invaded my work place as well. Lesson plans, students’ portfolios, and professional journals are sprawled across offices in four different departments in the school where I teach. Now, in addition to my hubby, I drive my colleagues crazy, too.

If this illness was only confined to hardcopy, it could be manageable, but now I collect everything written in cyberspace. At work I have 400 emails in my inbox, some from people whose names I no longer recognize. At home I have double that number with another 500 saved in sent mail. There is no longer any blank space on my writing table or on my virtual Mac Book desktop.

Ironically, though I hoard ideas in fear I may need that article, quote, or comment, I would never find it again. I waste hours tearing up the house and school searching for the perfect phrase that aptly inspires or consoles, that I know I saved somewhere.

When did I become a word junky? I blame my grandma, also a writer, when she gave me my first diary in grade school. Naturally, I misplaced that too. However I wasn’t surprised when thirty years later, new owners of the house discovered my diary tucked on ledge in my former bedroom and mailed it to me. Like homing pigeons even lost words find their way home.

Not only do I collect paper print, but I also saved T-shirts bearing the logo of every team I was affiliated with during my forty year career. Therefore not only are my shelves filled, my closets are overflowing.

I debated starting a self-help group for chronic collectors, but we would never move beyond the initial confession, “My name is Pat. I am a pack rat.” Though I would be the first to admit my addiction, I am the last person on earth to know how to cure such an ailment. Alas blogger buddies, I turn to you for advice. How do you begin to part with a lifetime’s recording of memories. Any tips for how to let go of words?

Walk away worries !


When I was growing up, I abhorred walking. Walking was too slow, too boring, for old people. I would bike, run, skate, even parade around the block on stilts to reach my destination. After a car accident ended my athletic career, I aged overnight. Forced to give up the pavement pounding I once loved, I concentrated on being able to put one foot in front of another and walk again.

In the beginning, I still hated walking, too slow, too boring, for old people. But now that I am old people, I have learned to appreciate it. Europeans helped me acquire a taste for walking. My German friends insisted on “spazieren gehen” through the woods surrounding Marburg. In Paris, like the French, I escaped my tiny apartment by heading outdoors, rain or shine, to a “promenade” in the park. In Switzerland, walking is as natural as breathing, especially in this nation of hikers, where every mile is beautiful.

In our techno, fast-paced, modern world, walking has become a lost art. Yet walking, which combines fitness, relaxation and meditation, is the safest sport. It costs nothing, wastes no energy, burns calories, builds muscle, fights fatigue. When I feel anxious, angry or depressed, I walk until worries slide off my shoulders.

I step outside my door into orchards and vineyards on the fertile slopes above Lake Geneva. While the sun slinks behind the Jura Mountains over my right shoulder, light shimmers around the white-peaked Mt Blanc to my left. The fields flame in amber, gold, rust of autumn marking the harvest in earth’s last hurrah before lying fallow for winter.

Walking forces us to slow down long enough from our hectic lives to appreciate the beauty of the moment, to take stock and count our blessings. Even though I live thousands miles from loved ones, I picture them walking in their daily lives. My sister paces around Yorkville’s newest subdivision at dawn, my daughter strides the halls of Minneapolis hospitals during morning rounds, my parents meander around Northland Hills mid day, my son dashes through Macalester quad to ball practice early afternoon, my niece marches in the band across Shaker Heights football field after school, my sister and brother-in-law stroll oak-lined streets of Golden Valley hand in hand at dusk.

Somehow when I walk, I am closer to family, matching each footfall step by step round the clock. Every hour of the day someone I love, somewhere, is walking to work, school, or practice.

I once dreamed of running marathons and skiing mountains, alas injury and illness prevented those goals. Though each year it is harder to roll out of bed, instead of lamenting what I can’t do, I focus on what I can do – walk. No matter how badly the rest of the day has gone, I am filled with wonder and wellbeing. Suddenly all is right with world.