Barbara Klutinis has lived her life seeking adventure. She rode the first fleet of jumbo jets for Pan American Airways as a flight attendant. She started her family, then switched gears and became an experimental filmmaker, a teacher and a fly fisherwoman who will travel the distance for a good stream.
These days she’s living another adventure, assisting her husband Jerry Steiner through Alzheimer’s disease and their son Dan, a film editor battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But Klutinis is also fighting for her own life: She’s a breast cancer survivor navigating a newly received terminal diagnosis.
“The chemo makes me tired but I decided I’m not going to let my life be all about cancer,” she said from the home in Noe Valley she and Steiner have shared since 1979, and where they raised their boys, Dan and Matt.
“We bought it for $135,000,” said Klutinis, her blue eyes sparkling, her smile never failing to flash. In a nearby room, Dan spoke with a graduate school classmate, Kevin Hume. The Examiner’s photo editor, who by coincidence, had come by the house on assignment.
“If I didn’t live at home, there’s no way I’d be able to live in The City,” said Dan who returned three years ago so he and his mother could walk through cancer together.
Klutinis came to San Francisco in 1970, when the airline was ramping up its 747 service; she flew until 1986. A photographer, she created a home darkroom and eventually became represented by a gallery (her striking hand-colored images hang on the wall of the dining room). She dipped into film classes at UC Extension where she met experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer and together they made “Pools,” about swimming in the Julia Morgan-designed pools of William Randolph Hearst at San Simeon.
“I was influenced by Barbara, making a lot of art films back then, and she became my mentor while I was in film school,” said Klutinis who graduated from the film program at San Francisco State then went on to teach there and at Skyline College; she also brought animation to children at the Rooftop School where her own kids attended.
“Film is so tactile, you hold it up to the light, you cut it with your hands,” she said. As the technology developed, she transitioned to documentary filmmaking. At the time, she was also discovering fly fishing.
“My husband’s sister lives in Montana and she asked if I wanted to try it. I used to fish with my dad in Tennessee and the whole experience — walking into the water, the rocks, the bugs — appealed to me,” she said. Fly fishing also gave her something less expected.
“After I left Pan Am, I felt like I lost my tribe and when I found the fly fishing women, I felt like I found my tribe again.”
She joined a local women’s fly fishing club founded by Franny Krieger. Fanny’s husband, the late Mel Krieger, an author and flyfishing master, taught her how to cast. “We used to go out to the casting ponds in Golden Gate Park,” said Klutinis.
Women in fly fishing have historically been marginalized and that gave Klutinis the idea to film Stepping Into The Stream (2010), the herstory of the Golden West Women Flyfishers.
“Franny said in the beginning, the men used to laugh at them,” said Klutinis. “But she’s turning 90 and still fly fishing.”
Through the filming, Klutinis became acquainted with Casting For Recovery, sponsor of fly fishing retreats for women with breast cancer. Klutinis didn’t know at the time that five years later, she too would become a fly fisher with breast cancer; rather, she was just working through the onset of her husband’s Alzheimer’s.
“He was nonchalant, but I felt so alone,” she said. It was her cue to join a support group where she immediately found help and the subject of her next film,The Sum Total of Our Memory (2014).
“As I was listening to everyone’s heartfelt stories, I realized I was in a unique position,” said Klutinis who also had a friend from Pan Am diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the same window.
“She talked about feeling ostracized and was happy to vent on camera,” said Klutinis, though Steiner declined to participate.
“That was fine with me. It was a little too close to home,” she said. Now nine years into his Alzheimer’s, “Jerry doesn’t know what year it is, he doesn’t know who’s president. He doesn’t know our granddaughter or that she’s a girl. ” she said.
As for her own prognosis, following onset and treatment in 2015, in 2018, she learned the cancer had metastasized.
“Oral chemotherapy seems to be working. You live from pet scan to pet scan, you live from treatment to treatment. It’ll work until it stops working,” she said. Turning hopeful, she adds“there are lots of new treatments.”
Dan also experienced temporary remission but his Hodgkins lymphoma returned, alongside new symptoms from treatment. Nevertheless, the family is pressing on with help.
“I’m really pushing myself,” she said. “I got tickets to the San Francisco International Film Festival. And I booked a trip to Mendocino for the family,” now including her daughter-in-law Hannah White and grandchild, Hazel, “Eight months old and she’s the love of my life,” she said.
As the conversation draws to a close, we discuss her generally cheerful disposition, all things considered, and she responds with her characteristic smile.
“It comes and goes,” she laughed. “You caught me on a good day.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.