Tree of Life


It’s the first day of Autumn,  which reminded me that I wanted to share a wonderful activity called The Tree of Life.  I was recently introduced to this exercise during orientation to CIIS‘s Expressive Arts Therapy program a few weeks ago.

The Tree of Life was developed by  Ncazelo Ncube, a child psychologist from Zimbabwe,   who co-partnered with the  Dulwich Centre in Adelaide, Australia  to create a healing exercise for children who had lost their parents to HIV/AIDS.  This gentle project allows people to find strength in their own personal stories using the tree as a metaphor (

This strength-based arts activity has been used in various communities around the world.  For instance, CIIS has partnered with The Glide Foundation in San Francisco in a research study to observe the use of expressive arts therapy with vulnerable children ( This activity is one of the arts-based methods being utilized to help kids develop strengths through their own histories in a way that does not re-traumatize them.

My “Lemon Cohort” classmates and I made our own trees during orientation. When I got home, I decided to incorporate what had gone into my tree that day directly into my journal. There is so much that can go into each level: the roots, which represent one’s ancestry and family history;  the ground to signify current sources of strength and influences;  the trunk to describe one’s skills and abilities;  branches as dreams, hopes and wishes; leaves to signify important people in one’s life and; the fruits – gifts that have been bestowed upon us.

My son worked on his own tree for a little while. He put “babysitter” on his trunk, which is cute, as he’s never babysat for anyone. I’ll take it to mean that this is a skill that he is developing.

I enjoy being back in school, and it’s great to have aesthetic responses and experiential activities incorporated into the curriculum. Naturally, there is also quite a bit of reading, which is why I have not been blogging very much. Life has been busy, which is good. All of these new experiences will find themselves on a future Tree of Life.


Game On!


I am thrilled to be starting a new round of Game On tomorrow.  Game On is kind of a diet or fitness program, but it is really so much more. When I told my friend Sandy several weeks ago that I had just completed the Clean regimen,  and was looking for another way to stay on track with my eating and exercising, she told me that she was involved in a game in which you try to lose weight (or meet a fitness goal)as a team sport,  and  that there were cash prizes!  Now this notion really spoke to me. I am very competitive, and am much more likely to stick to goals if it involves accolades and prizes. Not surprisingly, the co-author of Game On has a similar personality.

Krista Vernoff is a writer and producer of the TV show Grey’s Anatomy, and shares that the only thing that got her motivated to get in shape was a contest, proposed by her friend and fitness competitor, Az Ferguson. You see, Krista had put on a little weight after having a child (sound familiar), and as a writer for Grey’s Anatomy, she reports that she rarely left her comfy chair during the long days she spent writing. Over time, all of this sitting and eating and not exercising caught up with her, and she found herself 40 pounds overweight. Az gave her some tips on how to start getting in shape. He suggested exercising for 20 minutes every day, and eating 5 small meals consisting of a lean protein, a small portion of carbs and a bit of good fat every meal. He advised eliminating certain foods, drinking lots of water, and getting lots of sleep. Do it and the weight will come off, he told her. Well, despite whining that she really wanted to lose  weight, Krista only followed Az’s advice for maybe two days. Then several months later, Az proposed following his guidelines as a contest, and all of a sudden, Krista was out of her chair, on her stationary bike and eating 5 healthy meals a day.  Funny how the mind can work.

I was really excited about starting Game On last month.  Our game was administered by the vibrant and supportive Skipper Kim whom Sandy had met at Glide church in San Francisco. Everyone enters data on to an Excel spreadsheet, and everybody has to be honest. It’s kind of like grade school – if you cheat on your homework or test, you’re only cheating yourself, right?

Skipper Kim helped get us ready the weekend before the game began, encouraging us to grill up some chicken and vegetables, and start assembling our Game On (GO) meals. Now five meals a day may sound like a lot, but some of the meals are more like snacks. And there is no snacking between meals except for cucumbers and celery. (Apart from  any one 100 cal snack of your choice if you must). Otherwise, your meals should include one palm-sized portion of protein, a fistful of whole-grain carbs, and a thumb-sized portion of healthy fats.  There is a list of foods you cannot eat from (including any with refined sugar and  fried foods) and a nice list of healthy foods. Here are photos of some of the meals from the book, and one of my own:

Pete's Perfect Oatmeal Puddin' Breakfast

Pete’s Perfect Oatmeal Puddin’ Breakfast

Az's Easy no-Cook Meal

Az’s Easy no-Cook Meal

Turkey Breast, Grilled Zucchini and Millet a la Deirdre

Turkey Breast, Grilled Zucchini and Millet a la Deirdre

Bill's Spicy Stuffed Pepper To Go (stuffed with turkey breast, dijon mustard and olives) and a cup of Low-Fat Milk

Bill’s Spicy Stuffed Pepper To Go (stuffed with turkey breast, dijon mustard and olives) and a cup of Low-Fat Milk

Az's Super-Smooth Smoothie (that even my cat wants to drink)

Az’s Super-Smooth Smoothie (that even my cat wants to drink)

Mandy's Friggin' Awesome Chicken Cacciatore

Mandy’s Friggin’ Awesome Chicken Cacciatore

Kevin's Vanilla Strawberry Almost Ice Cream Treat

Kevin’s Vanilla Strawberry Almost Ice Cream Treat

There are some really good recipes in the book, and plenty of ideas for creating your own healthy combinations.

I mentioned exercise (20 min per day), water (3 litres per day), and sleep (7 hrs per night).  There’s more! You must introduce a new healthy habit and eliminate a bad one. Last time I limited my coffee intake to one cup per day. For my new habit, I committed to at least 10 minutes at the piano each day (which usually led to 30-40 mins). You must communicate with your team mates and opponents on a daily basis. And if you meet your fitness or weight goal, you get big extra points. There’s one day off and one meal off, and a limit on alcohol.

I was feeling great the first week of my last game. I had a perfect score! It couldn’t be easier. Just follow the rules, right? Not so fast,  champ. The second week I found myself snacking during my five year old’s temper tantrum (emotional eating, anyone?) I didn’t have time to do my practicing one day.  And then I didnt make my weight goal. So what happened in the end? My team didn’t win.  But you know what? I think we all won, and that’s why the game is so great. I lost weight, I had developed good habits, and I was feeling good.

Thanks to the daily communication with supportive team mates (and opponents whom we taunt but generally encourage), I have begun to run, and even like it! I bought a snorkel and have been doing laps in the pool (it’s so peaceful – just like snorkeling in the Caribbean minus the beautiful fish).  And I want to try a new art practice called Zentangle.

Don’t get me wrong – I still want to WIN win this next round. But I’m mostly looking forward to the structure, the teamwork, and the benefits.


Piedmont Stairs

trixandbadge stairpiedmont

My sister, Melissa, asked if my friends and I did a Stairway Walk after our huge lunch at Brown Sugar Kitchen a couple of weeks ago. Indeed, we did, although in order to burn the calories ingested that afternoon, we really needed to have done four walks, or else run the course several times, as we saw one fellow doing. We were content, however, to walk and climb at a leisurely pace, and enjoy the beautiful surroundings of Piedmont.

This particular walk is called Trestle Glen and Piedmont, with a duration 45 minutes,  a distance of 1.4 miles, a difficulty rating of 3 and 370 steps. This is one of the shorter walks in Charles Fleming’s book Secret Stairs East Bay, and begins on the border of Oakland and Piedmont near the intersection of Park Boulevard and Trestle Glen Road. There are Tracie and I, guidebook in hand, ready to go!

Located in the East Bay Hills, the small city of Piedmont is surrounded on all sides by the city of Oakland and is almost exclusively zoned for single-family residential housing. There are lots of gorgeous houses and spectacular views of Oakland, San Francisco and the San Francisco Bay. One of the first houses we came upon had a tree swing in the front yard. Alyssa and I were ready to try it out, but there had been enough egg on Tracie’s face for one day, so we kept going.

swing cherryblossompiedmont

There are some lovely saltillo tile patterns on several sidewalks, some which extend to the adjoining stairs. This is a type of terra-cotta tile that originated in Saltillo, Mexico. We also came across some golden poppy – the state flower of California.

saltyarch  poppies

This was a pleasant walk that I would do again. I could even see myself putting on some running clothes on a cool day, and talking the loop in both directions for exercise.  Well, we’ll see about that.

Egg on My Face


Egg on my face for not blogging for close to two weeks. A simple post about breakfast at Brown Sugar Cafe in West Oakland should have been easy to dash off. But this was no ordinary breakfast. Actually, it was lunch. And there were no eggs.  Unless you count the eggs used in Tanya Holland’s  crisp-on-the-outside-light-as-heavenly-air-on-the-inside  cornmeal waffles with brown sugar butter and apple cider syrup – yes, they are THAT good.  There were probably eggs in the batter Tanya uses to marinate that juicy,  crispy-coated goodness of buttermilk fried chicken that goes so well paired on the fork with a bite of waffle – mmmmm.

Who thought to combine these two foods? I’ve heard a couple of stories, but I like the one about jazz musicians in Harlem famished in the wee hours of the morning after a night of  playing and scatting and finally craving both breakfast and dinner.  Chicken and waffles would sure do the trick.


There must also have been eggs in the bacon cheddar scallion biscuit I felt the need to order, and that was  so ridiculously redundant. At least Tracie had the sense to order a salad, because I was eying the BBQ shrimp and grits. That could possibly have just killed me. Thumbs up for Tracie who is the voice of reason among the three of us. Alyssa is more like me, and ordered a side of mac and cheese. That was awesome, too. And naturally we saved room for dessert. Strawberry rhubarb crisp and sweet potato pie. In the past, I’ve been ambivalent about sweet potato pie. For me, it’s like pumpkin pie, but not as good. I think it’s because every version I’ve had has been kind of gritty. Not so this version! Brown Sugar’s sweet potato pie is smooth and creamy with a delicious buttery crust and topped with fresh whipped cream. The tangy and sweet fruit crisp was also excellent, and inspired Alyssa to make her own version the next day.

ladies!!! desseart

When we arrived at Brown Sugar at about 12: 20 PM on a Wednesday, there was a forty minute wait. Tracie and Alyssa were on Spring break, and I had a little time on my hands, but we wondered about the hordes of other diners waiting for a table.  “Don’t they have jobs?”  Tracie asked.  Well, she asked the wrong person, because I was happy to take a survey to find out. This is the kind of behavior that mortifies Tracie. I think it makes her feel something like this:


Well, from my informal survey, there are enough young software engineers and other hipsters working  from home, plus stay-at-home moms and tourists to keep Brown Sugar pretty packed on a regular basis. I can only imagine how crowded they are on the weekend.

I actually think we may have turned a corner with Tracie so that in the future she might be more accepting of what she affectionately calls my badgerific behavior. One of the diners I approached was a woman who was eating with a gentleman at the counter. They were both older (full heads of grey hair) and dressed very casually so I thought they might be retired.  It turns out the man recently moved to Sacramento from New York, and had heard of the restaurant, even before moving here. The woman lived in San Francisco and volunteered that she was in the neighborhood showing an apartment at 2:00 PM. It so happens, Tracie and Alyssa were considering moving to the East Bay, so I told her that we wanted to come see the place after lunch.


Well the apartment turned out to be gorgeous. It was the second floor of an old Victorian,  with all of the original wood details, renovated with stainless steel appliances, washer and dryer in the unit and this fantastic spiral staircase. The tenants would also have access to a huge, enclosed yard. It seemed to be too good to be true, but it wasn’t. It was just a great find. Unfortunately, the landlord did not allow dogs, and Tracie and Alyssa have a little French bulldog. Alyssa explained that Brooklyn was small and well-behaved. Well, it was a no go. Apparently, the previous residents were  model tenants who would make jam for the landlord. The only reason they were no longer there was that they wanted to get a dog. The landlord was disappointed. She liked Tracie and Alyssa. So Alyssa mentioned again how well-behaved Brooklyn, but the landlord cut in, “Don’t you understand? My last tenants were great! They made me jam! What if they drove by and saw a dog? I’d have egg on my face!”  So much for my badgerific ways resulting in the perfect apartment for my friends. The story didn’t end there, either. The woman had a house she was renovating in San Francisco, and there, she would allow dogs. But in the end that didn’t work out either. I was disappointed  because had it worked out, Tracie might never have had to ask me that question again:

2egg on my face

Scrambled eggs all over my face. What is a girl to do. Goodnight, everybody. Deirdre has left the building.

Secret Stairs in Berkeley


I consider walking and exploring great forms of therapy. I especially enjoy self-guided tours in urban areas,  so when I heard Charles Fleming talking on the radio about his book Secret Stairs East Bay (A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Berkeley and Oakland), I ordered a copy. Each circular walk is calibrated by length, difficulty and duration, and also, the exact number of steps on each walk.  Fleming had previously written a book on hidden stairways in LA where many locals were less than thrilled with urban hikers in their neighborhoods. By contrast, he reports that East Bay residents seemed delighted with explorers taking an interest in their necks of the woods. This tidbit made me happy as I have just recently begun to embrace the East Bay as my home. I moved from Manhattan to San Francisco in 1999 and then to the East Bay in 2004. For most of that time I considered myself a New Yorker spending a little time on the Left Coast. Fourteen years later I am still here with no plans to re-locate, so I think I can start calling myself a Californian. Hmm. Seeing that in writing is unsettling. New York is one of the most vibrant cities in the world, and I have never stopped loving it. I suppose I can think of myself as having dual citizenship. There.  That feels better.

I just came across a photo of what appears to be a stairway to the sky in mid-town Manhattan. In fact, this “stairway” is actually private patios and gardens at a residential development called Mercedes House. Next to that photo are some steps near Holy Hill in Berkeley. Those are real and anyone can visit them.

MercedesHouse1      steps

When I lived in New York, I enjoyed many self-guided and  a few guided tours, of which there are plenty. But apart from Washington Heights and areas north of it, you won’t find a lot of stairways in Manhattan, unless you’re inside of a building. (This is part of what makes it such a great walking city). I grew up on the South Shore of Long Island – also very flat. Geologically, Long Island  is the result of  sediment deposits from melting glaciers. Most of the rocky debris formed the North Shore which is what makes it hilly, with stony  beaches. The South Shore comes from the melted “outwash plain” which resulted in all of those white sandy beaches on the Island’s South Shore. Great beaches – no hidden stairways. In the mid-90s I lived in Hong Kong for a few months. Now that’s a city of outdoor stairways! Hong Kong is so steep that several escalators are built into its rocky terrain:


The perfect excuse to crack open the East Bay guide book came with the arrival of my sister Melissa and her wife Jennifer last week. You may recall from previous blog that they were visiting from the East Coast. The delicious lunch at Vik’s Chaat Corner in Berkeley was, in fact, fortification for Walk #6 (Holy Hill): 1.5 hours, 2.6 mi, 244 steps with a difficulty level of 3.  When we finished our lunch, however, it was raining a little, so we did a little shopping while we waited for it to clear up. Then we optimistically headed to Holy Hill – a neighborhood north of UC Berkeley campus characterized by several theological institutions.


We grabbed some good strong coffee from Brewed Awakening, a spacious college study spot, and set out to explore. Jennifer seems happy to be back in her old university ‘hood, and Melissa just seems happy.

holy2 holyhill

In days gone by, Euclid Avenue was home to a streetcar line. Many of the stairways on this walk connected residents to that line. The houses in this area are gorgeous, and the book discusses several individual homes and architects. The Berkeley hills are susceptible to fires, and many homes and apartment buildings in this area were destroyed by fire in 1923. The newer buildings are in keeping with the old architecture, however.

lovelypath  hillct

This delightful walk meanders through a beautiful hillside neighborhood, and is enhanced by Fleming’s historical and architectural descriptions. In addition to the charming stairways, there are several  hidden  paths on this walk. Had it not been for the book, we might have thought we were trespassing as several steps and paths are neatly ensconced between homes. In fact, some of these homes do not face the street, and are only accessible via these steps and paths. If you think you might be wandering into someone’s yard, just look for a street sign to be on the safe side.

We were so pleased with our walk that we decided to try another the next morning. This time, however, my five-year old son was going to be with us so I had to keep this in mind when picking a walk. I ended up selecting the shortest walk in the book – Walk # 7 (Berryman Station).


This 30 minute, 0.8 mi walk with 89 steps and a difficulty rating of 1.5 basically encircles Berkeley’s Live Oak Park.  This was perfect as I didn’t have to worry about streets and cars, and my son could run around and explore on his own a little.  The Berkeley Art Center lies on the perimeter of the park and I made a note to come back and visit.  My son had fun participating on the tour by counting the steps to make certain we were in the right place. Live Oak Park boasts a creek, a few bridges and a picnic area. There is  also a graffiti-covered wall which made me pine for New York. We came upon a plaque about the  Napoleon Byrne House, an 1868 mansion that once stood at this location and was home to “Nappy” Byrne and his family. They  traveled  from Missouri by covered wagon and are said to have been Berkeley’s first African American residents. Farther along on the walk is an interesting remnant –  part of a huge stone chimney which is all that remains of a 1915 residence destroyed by fire. My son liked this out-of-place structure in the middle of the trees and tried to open the big metal doors of what appears to be a working fireplace.

dommierunning       dommieruns

Well, my out-of-town visitors are gone, but my interest in stairway walks has been piqued. There is a soul food restaurant in Oakland that friends and I have been meaning to try, but we are a little nervous about the calories. A perfect solution might by chicken and waffles followed by an Oakland walking tour. Sounds like a good plan ….