Stretch

A gentle touch to correct my warrior pose let me know Claire Ngoon knew what she was doing. She did not push me into position. She guided me to feel what was right for myself.

The best coaches and teachers, like Claire, help their students reach their own conclusions, so the lessons are more likely to stick. Discussing that topic after our first group class, I was sold on private lessons.

Plus, the price was right. Claire would teach me an hour per week in exchange for my marketing advice and writing coaching.

The first private lesson was laughable, due to my basketball-ravaged ankles and arthritic knees. Although I had taken a few dozen Bikram and hot vinyasa flow classes at other studios over the years, I could not enter some of the poses Claire led, even one as simple as kneeling and then sitting on my heels with my feet extended behind me.

She deemed that pose important given my intention that yoga help me run hills more efficiently, which would decrease pain and increase the physical, mental and emotional benefits of both the running and the yoga. We spent much of the first class slowly flexing my ankles to point my toes into resistance bands.

Claire remarked on how little love and attention people give their feet, considering how much support their feet give them. That’s when I discovered she occasionally spoke in metaphor, which bode well for her marketing and writing.

Beyond that footwork, our first few lessons included more typical poses such as lizard, pigeon, and downward facing dog. At the start of each lesson, Claire instructed me to “let go of anything that will not be of use in your practice,” which is great advice for any endeavor. When necessary, she reminded me more specifically to engage only the muscles needed to maintain the pose.

She suggested using blankets and blocks to ease pressure on my joints and aid in certain stretches. I resisted at first, pridefully preferring to fight through pain. Then I reached my own metaphorical conclusion that, like medicine, I could use a block as a “crutch” that would let me stretch to the point where the block was no longer necessary for me to stretch even farther.

The more I stretched, the more I could stretch. Then, the training wheels could come off. Meanwhile, there was no shame in using the available technology.

Listening closely for metaphors of value far beyond the yoga mat kept me attuned to Claire’s voice. That way, after release from the final agonizing-but-so-worth-it lizard pose, when she led me into relaxation for the last quarter of each class, it seemed hypnotic. I lay on bolsters to open my chest, breathed as Claire suggested, and followed her advice to thank my body for its work and “simply be.”

And, “when it is time,” she would say, “I will bring you back.” She had to, because during those end-of-class moments, I was gone.

Every week, she asked me if anything had changed. I mentioned a pins-and-needles type of tingling in my left heel and the fear that my achilles would soon snap. Claire prescribed a daily dose of Himalaya salt dissolved in water. In a week the condition cleared completely.

Because that prescription worked, it was easy to follow her others, such as “intentional” stretching before and after runs and using resistance bands and foot massage at other idle times. Practicing at home like that, I also returned to the mindful state I experienced in the studio.

Even when travel canceled our sessions for weeks at a time, upon return Claire still could point out improvements. In our most recent session, I knelt and sat on my heels with my feet extended behind me. It hurt a little, but I maintained the pose for nearly a minute. Her excitement at such a small feat seemed inordinate, but great coaches and teachers know that celebrating incremental advances leads to exponential growth.

Interspersed with yoga classes, Claire received the promised writing coaching, advice on marketing tactics, and introductions to build clientele. I critiqued entries in her video series, which expounds and expands on yoga, including a recent video that is much more in keeping with advice I give most of my clients: to use some form of brand journalism to tell your story.

The story in that video covered Claire’s experience of letting a client discover she was fighting herself. Soon after watching it, I went for a run, and afterward, while stretching in a seated spinal twist, I suddenly noticed my straight leg was needlessly clenched.

Claire’s video echoed. I relaxed the leg, and my spinal stretch deepened. It became clear that Claire had used my brand journalism advice to produce a video that helped me follow her yoga advice. It proved a point from one of our sessions: that our barter agreement allowed for greater experimentation in our crafts than we would dare deliver to cash-paying clients.

Metaphorically, we both helped each other stretch.

Front Row at the Shitshow

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Athletes’ autographs long ago lost their meaning for me. But authors’ autographs still have value, as though the signature itself, and perhaps a personal note based on a moment’s discussion, affirms my connection to the writer’s work.

“There There” by Tommy Orange is such a work. You’ll never read anything else like the brilliant, brutal 10-page prologue, which alone stands as capital L Literature, crashing the canon with its naked depiction of all that has befallen Native Americans.

The San Francisco Public Library named “There There” its One City One Book selection for 2019. The library’s website says, “One City One Book: San Francisco Reads is an annual citywide literary event that encourages members of the San Francisco community to read the same book at the same time and then discuss it in book groups and at events throughout the City. By building bridges between communities and generations through the reading and, most importantly, the discussion of one book, we hope to help to make reading a lifelong pursuit and to build a more literate society.”

I couldn’t wait to discuss this book with Tommy Orange. He so thoroughly inhabited all dozen or so of his chapter-named protagonists that the chance to ask him how he did it could supplant a lifetime of learning how to write.

Held in conjunction with Litquake, the event was scheduled for the library’s main branch on Wednesday, October 16 at 6 p.m. Given the mass public’s appreciation for literature and concern with the Native American plight, plus the sidewalks near the library being littered with needles and human feces, I figured I could show up and get my book signed at 5:59.

But all seats were filled, and so were the aisles until the ushers said we could sit on the floor at the foot of the stage. After some pomp and circumstance, the MC introduced San Francisco Poet Laureate Kim Shuck, herself a Cherokee citizen, “in conversation with Tommy Orange.”

Minutes later, it was apparent that this event was no book group writ large. Between long silences and Kim wondering aloud what to talk about, it was an awkward, meandering non-conversation, covering such topics as their discomfort on-stage.

An audience member raised her hand and was called upon. She rose from her seat to suggest they discuss the book. “That’s some privilege,” said a voice from over my shoulder.

Tommy Orange asked her what she wanted to know. She mentioned that the book’s prologue was hard to read and wondered why he chose to write it that way. His head collapsed into his open palm.

Someone else asked if he could repeat the question. “No,” he answered. “We don’t need to repeat the question. Her privilege is showing, and she just needs to cover it up.”

The woman who asked the question and some others who looked like her left the building. While we waited for what was next, another woman raised her hand and was called on. She chastised the author, saying he had “shat” on the first woman. Tommy Orange asked for a moment of silence in memory of those women’s shattered beliefs and “Please, no more white hands raised.”

A few more people walked out. I felt criminal for being white, which kept me mindful of how everyone red — or yellow or black or brown — had suffered so much more for their skin. I genuinely wanted to discuss the book, but if Tommy Orange did not, that was his privilege, and of course it should not be my privilege to determine his privilege. That was part of the point of his book.

For another forgettable hour, the authors muddled through until the MC mercifully called time. I learned little of what I’d hoped to know, but I thought a lot. I thanked Tommy Orange for that from my seat in the front row of the shitshow, and I asked him not what I wanted to know but simply to sign his book.

New England

New England is a tease. Hopeful leaf-peepers on the opposite coast — watching webcams and reading reports to help schedule the right flights — learn that a long-lingering New England summer delays the fall colors, and a too-early cold and wind strips the trees bare before we can get there.

Sometimes, the not knowing spices travel just right. You can plan perfectly for the Vatican or Taj Mahal, less so for a natural religious experience like the agony and the ecstasy of a New England autumn.

This fall, our schedule was set by Val’s conference attendance in Boston and the travel plans of our friends, Winky and Peter. As to leaf-peeping, in keeping with the stiff-upper-lip Calvinism that has ruled the region for four hundred years, we might get nothing and like it.

A surer thing was our first pilgrimage to Fenway Park. On the afternoon of a night game against the San Francisco Giants, Val finished her conference while I lunched with my childhood friend, Ross Bresler, at Summer Shack. We feasted on oysters and lobster roll, the first in a binge of which no Calvinist would approve.

Walking that meal off on Commonwealth Ave., Ross gave me the neighborhood download and listed his favorite Fenway haunts. I took in the art history class he teaches at Berklee College of Music and later met Val, Winky and Peter to hit the streets for a different kind of “cultchah” on the walk to Fenway.

The pre-game bar scene, especially Lansdowne Pub, heightened my decades-in-the-making anticipation. But nothing could have prepared me for the heart-skip upon entering the ballpark and then the bucket list first glimpse of the “Monstah.”

My physical reaction to the emotion of the moment shocked me. It took an hour to fully regain my breath. Head-swiveling and eye-scanning all the sights from our seats about twenty rows up from the Pesky Pole, I wondered whether it was the world’s most famous foul pole and suddenly realized its twin, struck by Carlton Fisk’s twelfth-inning homerun in game six of the 1975 World Series, might be even more famous.

What are the odds, I considered, of the two most famous foul poles standing in the same park? I both feared and embraced these mental meanderings. I worried about devoting brainspace to such minutiae and still congratulated myself on completing the pilgrimage that allowed for this foul pole epiphany.

That reverie ended at the start of a pre-game ceremonial handshake between Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski and his grandfather, Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski. The sky purpled over that famous Green Monster of a leftfield wall that shadowed Yaz’s career.

The next major sensation amid so many — Italian sausage scents, “R”s-beome-“Ah”s in the local dialect, the spinal twist needed in a hard narrow wooden seat for the forty-five-degree view of home plate — was the clang of Steven Vogt’s homerun off the Pesky Pole. In fifty years of watching baseball, I’d never heard anything like it. It never occurred to me that a foul pole would clang. Whatever sound Pudge Fisk’s homerun off the leftfield foul pole might have made in 1975 was drowned out by the crowd roar.

And it was again in 2019 when the outfield video board played a Chevrolet ad showing a montage of Fisk highlights set to Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock.” Whatever else happens at Fenway, they honor their history.

And their tradition.

Pondering tradition, I asked Peter what he’d missed most about New England in the decades since he’d left. “The stoicism,” he answered with all the elan of Calvin Coolidge. Then the Giants’ bats got hot and the night got cold, and we shivered stoically through a five-run Giants’ ninth and a quiet last three outs for the Sox.

The next day, Winky and Peter left for their country house in Norwich, Vermont. Val and I started toward Portland, Maine, stopping in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to eat at Surf, on the recommendation of a Bay Area colleague, who had waited tables there. The view was spectacular.

So was the lobster roll, washed down by a bottle of Lord Hobo Brewing Co. Boomsauce, which tasted as irresistible as its name. That lobster roll, though. The bread was so soft and buttery with just the right give, and the meat so fresh and sweet and juicy, that Val showed discomfort at my deep sighs and closed eyes. It was a “When Harry Met Sally” scene, but I was not faking.

In Portland that night, my high school friend, Daphne, took us to Duckfat, where you can guess what I ordered. Then we hit Blyth and Burrows, where we had a little downstairs speakeasy room to ourselves. We talked baseball and journalism and how both could help solve the world’s problems, just as we had since our teens, and we laughed a lot of the same laughs as we had then, plus some new ones until the night faded and so did we.

Daphne toured us around the Portland waterfront the next day, explaining its history and socio-economics, and leading us into mom-and-pop shops.

We stopped at The Porthole for a lunch of you know.

After the rest of Daphne’s tour of Portland, Val and I left for Norwich. We took the straight rural backroads route across New Hampshire, over the river and through the woods, which were just starting to turn red and yellow. Dusk brought us to Winky and Peter’s farmhouse, which was built in 1792 and was somehow historically significant in the westward migration of the Mormons.

For each of the next three syrup-slow day days, we enjoyed home-cooked meals and cozy hardwood smoke smells around the fireplace. We stared at the trees in their yard and beyond and thought we could see them changing by the hour. On long walks through the hillsides, we glimpsed flurries of color here and there.

One afternoon, Peter and I golfed at a Donald Ross-designed nine-hole gem called Carter Country Club, which charged a near-criminal ten dollars for the privilege. The trees lining the fairways whispered autumn glory.

Too soon, it was time to fly back across the country. On our hurried interstate drive back to Boston, we saw this last little promise.

According to the webcams, we missed the peak by three weeks. Tantalized, we will return.

Cross-Client Communications

After leading a creative writing apprenticeship for Citizen Schools last spring, I wanted to try something new. The non-profit, which places volunteer Citizen Teachers into under-resourced middle-schools, agreed to my running a class using the curriculum of my client, Fit Kids, which provides structured fitness programs for under-served youth.

Last night’s Wow! event for Citizen Schools included this collage re-capping our Fit Kids apprenticeship at McKinley Institute of Technology.

This cross-client collaboration would impact the students through physical activity that promotes better health and social-emotional learning in areas such as teamwork and communications that are among the 21st Century Skills that Citizen Schools emphasizes. The collaboration also would serve Fit Kids by infusing a new level of front-line experience into the marketing communications services I provide.

Campaign ideas stemmed from the journal each student kept, which helped identify those who were most engaged and articulate. Early in the series of classes, Miguelito showed himself both as a top athlete and remarkably attuned to social emotional values. In just a few minutes with my voice recorder and Fit Kids’ go-to photographer Gino De Grandis, Miguelito made our work easy on this piece of fundraising collateral.

From the jump, leading the class was a blast — and a challenge. Citizen Teachers usually pair with an AmeriCorps teaching fellow, but logistics at McKinley this fall occasionally left me alone and without access to a gym, trying to teach 25 students, including several who spoke only Spanish. Years of coaching youth sports often reminded me how much I still had to learn, never more so than this year.

One way to confront the discipline issues that arose was to promise end-of-semester awards tied to the fitness testing within the Fit Kids curriculum. I often reminded students they could earn prizes not just for raw feats of fitness but also for showing the greatest improvement.

That approach encouraged greater focus and effort from both the best athletes and the less-talented. Most, on one level or another, seemed to strengthen their social-emotional character traits, such as determination and persistence.

For each of Fit Kids’ four fitness measures, we awarded medals to the boy and girl who performed best and who improved most. Some students won both medals in a given category. The top medalists were Diana, who proved her versatility and consistency…

…and Miguelito, who performed an astonishing 301 sit-ups.

Perhaps the biggest winner was the student whose journal entry committed himself to a longer fitness journey.

That student’s enthusiasm, expressiveness, and room for improvement in his writing may lead me next semester to run classes in both fitness and creative writing.