Monday, April 30, 2012

Yoga 101

Samskara saksat karanat purvajati jnanam. Through sustained focus and meditation on our patterns, habits, and conditioning, we gain knowledge and understanding of our past and how we can change the patterns that aren’t serving us to live more freely and fully.” ~ Yoga Sutra III.18

I didn’t do my first downward dog until sometime in early 2005.  That’s when I found yoga, in the most unlikely place, my crummy Bally Total Fitness in a strip mall in Studio City.  A gym that could be relied on to provide an endless stream of muscle-bound meatheads from the dungeon-like underground weight room, but was not known for a stellar group workout program.  Twice a week I went, trying to coax a body that had become unyielding after a year of stress and neglect into abstract poses I did not remotely understand.  My teacher was gentle, persuasive.  At about sixty, she had the lithe, flexible body of a twenty-five year old.  Her hair, a sparkly mix of blonde and silver, hung lush and long.  Her skin glowed.  She was radiant.  I wanted to be her.  We all did.  If this was what yoga could do, I was all in. 

It was slow going.  I knew that yoga was a practice of finding mental stillness within physical vigor, but it took at least three months of twice weekly, hour and a half classes before a quiet space first appeared in my mind.  They were fleeting at first, but as my muscles grew strong and my flexibility increased, I was able to find a little silence.  I stopped thinking about the things going on in my day, and started to think about the poses.  Stack my hips, knee in line with foot, shoulder blades down.  In an effort to be deliberate, to do it right, it happened.  Suddenly yoga became something that was both challenging and peaceful. 

Over the last seven years, it’s a practice that has been in and out of my life.  Finding the right teachers, I discovered was not always as easy as wandering into your gym on a rainy Tuesday and seeing the class schedule posted.  When Devin left Bally’s a year and a half later, I did too. But it would be a long time before I found another teacher like her.  A spine surgery in late 2009 would further complicate things.  When I first returned to yoga, six months after, it was nerve-wracking.  I felt fragile, off-balance.  A slight reduction in neck mobility meant that I could no longer reach the full expression of plow.  A headstand of any kind was out of the question. 

The thing is, when it comes to athletics of any kind, I’ve always been an achiever.  I know I’m terrible at hand-eye coordination, so if there’s a ball involved, I usually stay far away.  But with anything I do try, my goal is to do it well.  I like good form.  I like to do it right.  I like to win.  My yoga practice was broken.  When I moved to Dallas in 2011, I started taking class at a little donation-based studio called Karmany.  And there I found a new teacher.  Amy’s energy is infectious.  She invites you to try, to fall, to try again.  I found a new type of practice.  One where I couldn’t do all of the things I used to be able to do, but I could be okay with it.  Over the past year, I’ve tried to make it to Amy’s class at least once a week.  That plan didn’t always work so well.  I had other goals.  I was busy becoming a runner.  I had miles to cover and races to finish.  And then the beginning of April rolled around.  My knee and my hip needed a break from the pounding.  I was back to being about as bendy as a telephone pole.  So I cashed in a Groupon for 25 classes at another nearby studio, American Power Yoga, interestingly enough, the place where Amy did her training.  Three days a week for three months was the new plan.  One at Karmany and two at APY.  I would be silly putty.  Or at least silly putty-ish. 

This past week, about three weeks in, something pretty cool happened.  I’ve been doing downward dogs for seven years now.  I always understood that it was supposed to be a resting pose, but much like the mental focus eluded me in the beginning, the resting part of a down dog had always been a bit of a mystery.  I was always focused on so many things, shoulders down, heels down, head in line, fingers and toes spread.  I was always working at the pose to make it better, to improve.  Like there was a contest for the best down dog.  And one day last week, in the midst of a more regular yoga practice than I’ve ever done before, I just let go.  And everything between my hands and feet pressed against my mat began to float.  It was effortless, and I have no idea how it looked, nor did I care, because in that moment, it felt perfect.  And then I did it again.  And again.  It took me seven years and a down dog, something that would look wildly inappropriate anywhere public but in a yoga class, to crack the code. 

I’m a typical first-born.  Overachiever.  Serious.  Goal-oriented.  I’m always trying to do too many things at once, which generally results in me getting nothing done of real consequence.  I needed a reminder.  That sometimes, all you really need to do is stop thinking about every little aspect of whatever it is you are doing, and just let go.  That’s when you can really fly. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Note to Self

Dear younger self on the day of your high school graduation,

You are about to graduate from high school and in a few months you’ll head off to Los Angeles to start college and a new life.  If I remember correctly, you’re equal parts excited and terrified about this prospect.  It’s a feeling you might want to get used to, it’ll come up again and again.  For the most part, the experiences you will have over the next twenty years will be pretty necessary, even if you think you could do without them some of them.  That being said, if I were in a position, on the eve of my twenty year high school reunion, to give you some advice that might make the challenges easier to bear, the good stuff easier to recognize and the whole shebang happen in a more fashionable wardrobe, believe me, I would.  So here goes…

The Good
You’re about to meet a guy, who weirdly enough, your 14-year-old sister is going to set you up with.  He’s pretty awesome, and when he says he loves you, he really means it.  You’re going to break up with him in a year and a half or so.  You should.  You’re young,  you live far apart, you have lots to see and do before you settle down.  But here’s the part that’s really important.  This guy is probably the most truthful, genuine, caring guy you’ll meet for a long time, so he’s a good yardstick to measure the rest of them up to.  If they fall short, and they will, chalk it up to a learning experience and just hang in there.  When you meet another one like him, you’ll know it, and this time, you’ll be good and ready.  You’ll pick some good ones, or they will pick you.  You’ll also pick a lot of questionable ones, and on more than one occasion you’ll wish you’d never met those.  Don’t.  Almost every one of them teaches you something valuable.  Well, except the really pretty one.  You’ll know who I mean.  He’ll turn out to be a good friend in the end but don’t go with him to that house party in the Hollywood Hills.  It’ll happen pre-iPhone days (just wait, kind of amazing), and you’ll be stuck in a gilded bathroom with a handful of Hollywood posers snorting blow all night and you won’t be able to GPS your location to get a cab and get the hell out of there.  You already know cocaine is stupid and pointless, and thankfully you didn’t have to learn it the hard way.  So just save yourself the agony of that long night, because it’s gonna suck, and you won’t be able to get it back. 

The Bad
In the middle of your twenties, something pretty crummy is going to happen.  It’s going to feel as if the world has turned you inside out, like you’re some pair of ill fitting clothes on someone else’s body.  You won’t know how to make it through.  I’m not about to tell you what happens, because there’s simply and absolutely nothing you can do to make it different.  I’m just here to tell you, I love you and it won’t ever be okay, but you’ll get through it. 

The Ugly
Generally, you’re not half bad in the fashion department.  Your choices are often on the safe side, you could stand a few more pieces with patterns to break up all that solid color, but most days you’ll get through without someone whispering “fashion victim,” or “fail” behind your back.  I said most days.  When you start college, please for the love of God, do not wear Birkenstocks with socks for the better part of your freshman year.  You’re moving to California, not a hippie commune.  Yes, I know they are comfy and you have a long walk to class every day.  That is what tennis shoes are for.  And lose the stomach baring cropped sweaters senior year.  You are cute, and post freshmen fifteen, in pretty decent shape, but you are not Britney Spears.  As for the hair, skip the attempt at red highlights.  And the blue.  But keep the purple, those actually work. 

Shoulda Would Coulda
I don’t want to tell you to change much about how you do all the things you are about to do.  Because I think most of your choices are going to be the things that shape the woman you will become over the next twenty years, and that’s a woman who doesn’t believe in regretting choices or spending too much time looking back on all the things she should have done differently.  That being said, there’s this one thing.  You like to write.  In college you’ll write even more – papers for school, lousy poetry for the boys you like which they will never read, and stories.  You’ll write at night when you can’t sleep.  You’ll write for fun even when you’ve spent all day on a paper for school.  You’ll find that you love it.  Don’t ignore that.  When you think maybe you should take some writing classes, do it.  If you find yourself wondering if a degree in Creative Writing is a good idea, remember that I told you it is.  And that day, in the first year after you get out of college, when you start to write that story that you will think might turn into a novel, don’t stop writing it.  Don’t put it down for months and years at a time.  You’ll be afraid you don’t have it in you to write a whole book.  That you can’t do it.  You can.  Just keep writing.  Think really hard about whether that master’s degree you are about to apply for shouldn’t be an MFA.  Decide for yourself, but don’t be scared to just go for it.

Life two decades from now will be pretty good, despite the fact that it will look exactly nothing like you picture it right now.  And on the last weekend in April, 2012, you’ll be headed to your 20 year high school reunion.  You’ll be looking forward to it, and you’ll still be friends with a few of the girls you’re standing now standing around with in white dresses with abnormally large bows on the sleeves and equally outsized white hats.  Right now, in this moment, you all look the same.  84 women on the verge.  In 20 years, you’ll be 84 different women.  Because of it all.  And that’s a good thing.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Vegas in the Springtime

Yesterday afternoon, after a very bumpy flight, the kind that gives even a seasoned traveler like me clammy hands and a few mild heart palpitations, I landed in that desert oasis known to many as Sin City.  Las Vegas.  It occurred to me, as I made my way through the airport towards the interminably long taxi line, amidst the ka-ching sound of slot machines, sandwiched between the two best friends I will spend today working and playing with, that this was the third year in a row that I had made an April trip to the strip and my second one here in less than six months, not to mention my sixth in three years.  That’s a lot of Vegas time for someone who no longer lives in close proximity and doesn’t have a gambling addiction.  In my defense, and lest you think me an insufferable party animal, no would be a good time to note that half the trips were work related, and as for the other three, one involved a half-marathon, one was to see family and one had the sole purpose for visiting was a baby shower.  Yes, a baby shower in Las Vegas.  But I’ll get to that later.

My first April here was in 2010.  Any good rockabilly fan should know about the Viva Las Vegas weekend event that takes over the Orleans Hotel every spring.  A weekend of cool bands, slick cars and the hippest cats this side of the Mississippi.  So now might be a good time to mention I sometimes moonlight as a 19040’s pin-up doll in a performance/dance group called The Diamond Bettys.  Think USO style-show, with dancing, classic 40’s and 50’s tunes, a little singing and a host who is hopefully both funny and charming.  If I’m not, don’t tell me.  We had been invited to perform two mainstage shows during the weekend-long event.  That April I was still fairly fresh off a difficult breakup and still reeling from the blow.  And the ex in question was in the process of moving to Las Vegas.  This was now his city and I was a nervous outsider.  By the end of the weekend, after a stint on the news, two mainstage shows with rousing audience approval, some quality time with a great group of girls and by the end of the weekend, I owned the town.  Well, at a slightly sketchy stretch of it along Tropicana. 

A couple months later, I came back, this time for an old friend’s baby shower.  Jennifer moved here from LA years ago and is one of my oldest and dearest friends from my life in the City of Angels.  She was a first-time mom, single and with twins on the way.  It wasn’t even a question of if I would come.  I packed my dog in the car and made the road trip to spend the weekend with her.  I did see the ex on that trip, unexpectedly, coming at a time when I still thought we had a chance of something down the line.  It was the last time I would see him, and shortly after, we would fall out of communication, for many reasons that make me sad, because in a quiet moment, when I think back on that part of my life, I can remember the good times. 

The following fall, with my life and car headed in new directions, my mom and I came through on a road trip.  I was taking said car, and my dog on a month-long trip to Dallas.  A chance to see how I felt about the town I hadn’t lived in for 18 years.  We waylaid in Vegas for a night.  My cousin Kyle had starting his contract to star in Love, the resident Cirque du Soleil spectacle about the Beatles.  We wanted to catch him in the act, because how often does a relative star in a Cirque Show as the spirit of John Lennon.  I’m guessing not often.  Let me just interject with a note on how much I love Vegas shows, Cirque shows in particular.  A dream vacation to Vegas for me involves meals in great restaurants, some time by the pool and a show every night.  But this was even better than that.  My own family member, owning that big, brilliant stage.  He smiled at me once during the show.  Well, almost smiled, he’s not aloud to move his mouth more then a few inches, per the artistic director’s interpretation of the character.  But that tiny half grin, made me feel like a star.  And like family.

Last April, the Betty’s came back for Viva Las Vegas, round two.  Which came just a few months after I’d left LA for the big move back to my hometown.  This time we were invited to model for the big fashion show, walk the runway for Bettie Page Clothing.  That trip was a chance to reconnect with my girls on the West Coast.  Plus I got to see Jennifer, and Kyle.  The trip was a good gut check on my world.  Did I make the right decisions in the past?  Maybe, maybe not, but I felt at peace.  In December, I was here again.  And last night as we walked to an amazing Indian restaurant to eat our weight in naan and tikka masala, I marveled at the expanse of Las Vegas Blvd, a street I had last seen for 13.1 miles on foot, in the dark of night.  But you can read more about that here.

Today, I’ll spend most of the day somewhere at the Renaissance Hotel, or maybe the Convention Center.  Something called the NAB.  I guess with as much of a tech geek I am, I should know something about it but I honestly have no idea.  Renee, Alika and I will be wandering around somewhere, handing out flyers.  It’s not a Bettys gig this year, it’s just the three of us.  A new fiancĂ©e and her two bridesmaids, who spent the flights here gabbing about which wedding gowns will look best on the lovely Renee.  We’ll be gone by tomorrow morning.  It wasn’t that long ago that I was here last, for my first half-marathon.  And landing here again today got me thinking about what Vegas is to me.  For most people it’s a place to party, a place to escape, to get away from the real world.  I haven’t been to Vegas purely for a vacation in almost three years.  I’m sure I’ll do it again, in fact, I kind of look forward to it, just to see what it might bring, which will hopefully be good food, great shows and some time by the pool.  But for now, for me, Vegas has become something altogether different.  It’s a home.  To an old friend and her new twin boys.  To an ex-love.  To family.  It’s a challenge.  A place to conquer, miles to cover.  Somewhere to find a little bit of success just when you need it.  It’s a job, albeit a fun one.  That I get to do with the best friends a girl could have.  And so each visit, without gambling a penny, I get to go home a little richer than when I arrived. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Easter Dinner for Wayward Children

For two years, my sister Wendy and I lived together in a small house in the North Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles.  She was finishing up her undergrad at Occidental College and I was going to grad school at Claremont.  As Easter rolled around that first year we lived together, we both found ourselves craving the traditional Easter foods of our youth.  We have always been a family of holiday food traditions.  Christmas eve was grandma’s paella and empanadas, in honor of my grandfather’s Spanish heritage.  Christmas morning, bagels and lox, a nod I suppose, to our some Jewish lineage in our family, and also just because we like it.  Christmas dinner was crown roast of lamb and twice baked potatoes.  But Easter was always one of our favorites, a Honeybaked Ham, as in from the Honeybaked store, scalloped potatoes, which is the definitively the best way to eat them and an old English family recipe for a sweet wine and raisin sauce that gets poured over absolutely everything.  Followed, if you can find the room, by peach cobbler.  An unusual variation on the recipe that somewhat resembles a clafoutis, with puffs of airy cake made with lots of spiced rum surrounding sweet peaches. 

Neither of us were particularly religious, Wendy and I both leaned towards a more universal approach to spirituality, understanding and respecting the beliefs and traditions of a number of different religions.  But we also both understood that sometimes, holidays are less about the historical moments they symbolize and more about the way they give us an opportunity to come together, and a chance to share the things we have with those around us who we care about.  Things like love, and peach cobbler.  So we decided to pull together the family recipes, make a trip to the Honeybaked Ham Store.  And then we put the word out to friends – those displaced from families due to college or work.  Those with no connection to their families, those with no connection to the idea of holidays.  There was no formal invitation, just an open door policy.  We called it our “Easter Dinner for Wayward Children.”  We were very clever back then.  We had a full house and a houseful of full tummies.  So we did it again the following year.  Same menu, same policy, same chance to share with friends who didn’t have other plans.

After Wendy was killed, I took a little hiatus from my regularly scheduled life.  But as things began to turn right-side up again, I tried to reconstruct those dinners from my own little rental house in LA.  What’s funny is that I know I had a few of them over the last 11 years and I know people came, but it just wasn’t quite the same, and to be honest, though it makes me sad to say it, because I know that friends I love dearly came, I don’t even really remember them.

About a year ago I moved back to Dallas.  We didn’t do Easter dinner last year, I was still in the midst of the adjustment process from moving across the country.  But last week, I suddenly got the craving.  The one for ham and scalloped potatoes with wine sauce all over everything.  The one for a holiday shared with friends.  And the one for making Easter dinner with my sister.  Two of my best friends moved back to Texas within the same six months that I did.  So I put out an invite to them, and to another friend, one who went to school with my sister and has become a part of our family in lieu of a great relationship with her own. 

Saturday afternoon, I made wine sauce and peach cobbler in the kitchen I grew up cooking in.  One I spent countless hours in with my sister.  She was with me, making sure the flavors were right in the sauce.  Definitely making sure I had a heavy hand with the rum in the cobbler.  Sharing in my enjoyment during what she thought was the best part of the cobbler making process, when you got to squish the peaches in your hands and let them fall into the batter.  Sunday, I scalloped the potatoes, cutting my finger twice while peeling them and wishing I could hand that job off to Wendy.  And Sunday evening, with my dad out of town, we sat around my family’s dining room table.  Renee’s new fiancĂ© was with her, and Alika’s boyfriend came too.  And Tash, my mom and me.  Wendy was there too, in the house, in the meal and in our memories.  Our Easter Dinner for Wayward Children was complete.  And then I realized that we were no longer wayward.  And as we laughed and ate and drank, and drank some more, I knew that we had all somehow, found our way home.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Run, Karen, Run

I am not a runner.  That’s a phrase I’ve said most of my life.  It started back in the 7th grade, where my classmates from Hockaday will fondly remember with me the joy of the 10-minute run at the start of Phys Ed.  “I’m not a runner,” I would say in a breathy huff, to somebody, anybody, as I shuffled around in a loop inside the big gym in the dark green shorts and white t-shirt that made up our PE uniform, as if this statement explained away my inability to get through 10 minutes of running without stopping to walk.  In high school, I joined the swim team.  My feet didn’t have to hit the ground, I didn’t have to sweat and most of my effort came out in short bursts.  I was a sprinter.  No long distance anything for me.  In college, while some of my friends were enjoying a different kind, I got addicted to the endorphin high that comes from a good long bout of cardio.  My early twenties, AKA the step-aerobics years, started me down a path to good cardiovascular fitness.  At the time, I had no idea it would be 13.1 miles long.

“I’m not a runner,” I said to my friends, in 2006, when I signed up with Team in Training to participate in an Olympic-distance triathlon, “but I might just try.”  Over the intervening years, after my step had fallen woefully out of fashion, I’d cobbled together sort of a half-run, half-walk routine.  It usually got me through three to four miles, though I probably only ran a mile or two.  For the triathlon, I would have to run a 10K.  6.2 miles was new territory.  The coaches helped, as did a lecture on running form.  But I was still walking.  In both races I did that following spring, I couldn’t get through the run without breaking for a walk on a regular basis.

“I can be a runner,” I finally said, to myself, late last summer, and signed up for the Rock n Roll Half Marathon in Las Vegas before I could change my mind.  Why Vegas?  The run was at night, on the strip, with all the lights and people.  I needed motivation, I needed the race to seem fun, and I was willing to travel to make that happen.  The marathon was in December, so I had thirteen weeks to train.  I scoured the internet, asked runner friends and finally culled together a training plan, all printed out nicely, so I could check off each workout.  And then I just did it.  I became a runner.  Slowly, starting with interval training, and building my walks right into the workout at first.  I ran four minutes, then walked one minute.  On a treadmill, because it was still too hot in early September to run outside.  It was boring, but I kept at it.  And then I worked my way up to running ten minutes and walking one.  I lived for that one minute for a while.  I built up my distance.  And then something changed.  As the end of the minute approached, I realized I was eager to start running again.

“I am a runner,” I said to my parents and my friend Jimmy, when I finally found them in the mob scene that occurs when 44,000 people try to run the same race in the middle of the Las Vegas strip.  On December 4th, 2011, I ran 13.1 miles in 2 hours and 12 minutes.  The only time I stopped to walk was as I passed through each water station, and only long enough to get a good drink without sloshing it all over my face.  Just for good measure, I ran a 15K in February, freezing my ass off on one of the coldest days of this past winter in Dallas.  And about a week ago, I ran half-marathon number two, the Rock n Roll Dallas.  And despite continuing issues with knee and hip pain, I finished in 2:09.  I’m not the fastest runner, and probably not the most graceful, and if I want to keep going, I’m going to need some coaching because without changing my gait somehow, the knee pain is threatening to do me in.  But I think it’s safe to say I am a runner now.  What’s crazy is that I actually like it.

A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed my 94-year-old grandmother for an online magazine (read it here).  She talked to me about what it’s like to be her age.  About how important it is to keep on living.  “Nobody’s too old to try anything they want to do,” she told me.  She went on to say, you have to keep trying new things, even if you don’t succeed at them, because it keeps you young.  She took up tap dancing for the first time at 77, which makes my discovery of running at 37 look like small potatoes.  Except that it proves her point.  Because, despite the achy knee and another birthday next week, I feel great.