Thursday, March 15, 2012

The High Price of Women's Political Apathy in the 2010 Elections

On March 12, NPR's Diane Rheum Show hosted a panel discussion about "The Battle for Women's Votes." I tuned in after the introductions were made and listened for quite a while before I knew who the three guests were. One of the panelists presented her points of view in a harsh and harridan-ish way, scolding and chastising the other guests and speaking very derisively of everyone whose comments she did not like. A picture arose in my mind as I listened to her: Sister Mary Scary, nine feet tall, six feet wide, wooden ruler in hand, ready to deliver retribution to anyone who looked like they might start trouble. (Is it obvious that I attended Catholic school during my formative years?)

When the host reintroduced everyone, it all became clear. The harridan-ish person was an actual, bonafide harridan, Phyllis Schlaffly. Younger people may not know who Phyllis is. Lucky you. She is an Catholic Illinoisan who became the extremely vocal and exceedingly nasty leader of the anti-choice movement beginning in the early 1970s. (A little history lesson: repressive anti-abortion laws in the USA were overturned by the Supreme Court in 1973.)

I lived in St. Louis, Missouri at the time and found it very difficult to escape Phyllis's harping and screeching anti-choice venom. She also espoused a very fundamentalist, anachronistic view of women's position in marriage and society. I could not stand Phyllis or her political and social agenda and I felt disappointed on Monday to discover that she hadn't gone the way of the dinosaur yet. Aside from her comments, I found the program very interesting.

The other two guests were Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization of Women, and Karen Tumulty, a national political reporter for the Washington Post. Terry O'Neill made a comment that riveted me. She said that the 2010 national and state legislature election outcomes were severely affected by an unusually low turnout of women voters. (O'Neill cited a study to support this, which I can't remember, so you'll have to listen to the program on Diane Rehm's podcast if you want those details.)

According to this study, O'Neill said, an extraordinary number of ultra-conservative and fundamentalist-leaning candidates gained office because women did not vote. O'Brien and Associates blog post of February 24, 2012, states, "However, according to O’Neill, the total number of women voters dropped in 2010, particularly unmarried women, who traditionally vote more progressively and Democratic. Married women tend to become more Republican."

So what difference did a little apathy on the part of women make? Just this. Over 1,000 anti-women bills (meaning anti-choice, anti-birth control, anti-equal rights, etc.) have been introduced at the state level since 2010 and over 100 of them have passed. And we've all seen what's been happening in Washington. Did you wonder why we suddenly had this spate of dangerous legislation like forcible sonogram bills? Now you have the answer.

Women got fed up and stayed home from the polls. The number of women in national elected office suffered, too. As quoted in the O'Brien and Associates blog I mentioned earlier, O'Neill states,  “In 1992, the number of women in Congress increased from 5 percent to 10 percent. And in 2010, we lost women in Congress largely in part because of women not voting.”

My contemporaries and I worked hard, really hard, in the 1960s and 1970s to overcome paternalistic and misogynistic laws and attitudes in the United States. I speak for many women when I say that, as members of the last generation that witnessed the horrors of illegal abortions first hand, pro-choice and pro-birth control legislation has the greatest significance for us. We are now the older generation. We still support these causes, although I, for one, admit to utter weariness with fighting the same battles again and again.

What do we do? Oddly enough, the answer appears to be quite simple. Vote. I'd like to say "Vote early and often," the old canard from Chicago's Daley-machine days, but that would be wrong. Just vote once, but do vote. Even if your vote is different from mine, even if you support things that I think are awful, vote. Women have the potential to powerfully affect election outcomes and we need to exercise that power this year. If the ultra-conservatives get a stronger grip on this country in November, it may be the last opportunity we have for quite a while.

Fight back with your vote.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Dancing Through the Weekend

My 3-6-12 blog got sidelined. After I reread it, I realized that it had sunk to whining and complaining and, even worse, it named names. Part of me wanted the people in question to see it and feel bad, another part of me thought that the ensuing discourse would not be helpful and might cause hard feelings. I decided to opt for rising above my own hard feelings to avoid causing them in others.

While I mulled this dilemma over, I put the posting into Limbo, just in case I decided to publish it after all. Now that I’m going with the angel instead of the devil, I need to publish something for this week.

Hmm … Someone once told me she did not read blogs because who cared what someone else ate for lunch anyway. I have used that as my standard for essays. Is it more interesting than what I ate for lunch to someone who is not me? Looking over my recent escapades, I think I will focus on dance experiences.

Last weekend, Michael and I were privileged to see not one, but TWO ballet companies perform – The Houston Ballet and the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. The Houston Ballet danced an updated version of Cinderella. It charmed me. Cinderella, transformed from a helpless drudge dependent on bluebirds, mice, and a fairy godmother, gives as good as she gets from the nasties in her life.

She punches and kicks in scuffles with the stepsisters, played by two young men in the company who minced and preened perfectly, and is no more cowed by the wicked stepmother than the stepsisters are. Stepmother, played by another male dancer, is severe and conniving and not above man-handling all three of the girls. She saves her special meanness for Cinderella, though, by mistreating the girl’s alcohol-impaired father and by taunting her with what she can’t have – a ticket to the big ball at the castle.

The funniest scenes of this dance took place at the ball. Prince Florimund is played not as charming, but as vain and over impressed with himself. Florimund and his minions reminded me of The Fonz with their use of moves stereotypical of a man on the prowl. The kind of guy that delivers a terrible pick-up line with the absolute certainty that he is funny and delightful and all maidens within earshot will promptly swoon.

Cinderella swoons for another, however, a spectacled young man who is the only nice one among the minions. Ultimately, the two of them get to have the happily ever after they deserve. The stepmother and stepsisters get appropriate (and satisfying to the viewer) comeuppances. And the father, by dying nobly, finally protecting his daughter, is reunited with his first wife to live in blissful, ghostly happiness.

Not to be overlooked were the zombies. Billed as ghosts, a five-year-old would have recognized them as zombies. In this version, it is Cinderella’s dead mother (oddly un-zombie like) and her army of zombie minions who save the day for Cindy. The undead were funny and danced exactly the way I would have expected zombies to dance if I had ever considered that they might do ballet.

I found the ballet charming and funny and well worth the time and money I invested in seeing it. The Alvin Ailey Dance Company was equally worthwhile, although an altogether different dance experience.

Before I get into that, let me just get this off my chest: Jones Hall is by far the most badly designed venue in Houston for patrons. The endless stairways one must climb and descend to get anywhere – bathrooms, concessions, seats – are ludicrous and it boggles the imagination that someone actually planned the place.

If it had grown from a small theater to the big place it is by accretion, like you see among older homes in the country sometimes, I would be more tolerant, but this is not Ma and Pa Kettle’s old cabin with rooms added willy-nilly over 50 years. Someone actually thought this theater’s layout was a good idea!! Don’t even let me get started on the difficulties it caused me when I was in a wheelchair. We stopped going there after one season because it was simply too hard to navigate. Now I’m walking, but it is almost as difficult for able-bodied people as for the handicapped. What were they thinking??

Now, back to the dancing. The first thing that struck my about the AA dancers was their size. These performers, men and women, seemed bigger than most dancers, more athletic and robust. It did not impair their dancing at all, nor did it diminish their grace or the beauty of their movements.

This performance felt like one was reading a book of short stories, where Cinderella approximated a novel. The genres are different, but both are worthwhile. The AA Dance Company gave us short dances with lots of meat on them to mull over and think about after the performance ended. A few of them really stood out.

The Hunt, performed by men wearing long, red-lined black skirts beautifully portrayed the camaraderie and competition among a cohort of hunters. The skirts, an odd contrast to their bare chests, startled me at first, but by the dance’s conclusion, I felt they fit perfectly with the choreography. The music for this dance, selections from “Jungle Jazz,” thrilled me with its booming, staccato rhythms. I need to see if that album is still available.

The biggest piece in the performance was also the most impressive. Revelations, choreographed by Alvin Ailey, sets dances to ten Negro spirituals. Each spiritual had its own costuming, which always seemed absolutely perfect for the music and the choreography. “Wade in the Water,” for one example, featured men in loose-fitting white trousers and women in long, flowing white dresses and wide-brimmed, white, flowered hats. A bolt of satiny blue cloth stretched diagonally across the stage and, manipulated by unseen hands, billowed and flowed like water as the dancers moved in and out of it. It seemed like perfection to me.

I have seen a group of Alvin Ailey dancers perform before once before, in 1991 or 1992, at a free performance in the lobby of the World Trade Center in NYC. (Don’t ask me which building.) I was in NYC on business and fit in a visit with my college friend, Greg, who took me on my first subway adventure to get to the performance. It was my one and only experience with the World Trade Center prior to 9-11, and it has given me a wonderful alternate image to substitute for the final images we all saw of those buildings.

I would definitely attend another Alvin Ailey Dance Company performance, even if I had to go to Jones Hall to see it, and I’m already seeing the Houston Ballet again next Saturday. One difference between the performances that really got my attention was the demographics of the audiences. The Houston Ballet performances I usually go to –Sunday afternoon in the past and Saturday evening in recent years – are predominantly attended by white people, with a few black, Hispanic, and Asian patrons included. When there were some black dancers in the company, including Lauren Anderson, Carlos Acosta, and a young dancer named Cleopatra Williams, the black audience was bigger.

The audience at the Alvin Ailey Dance Company’s performance we saw, on a Sunday afternoon, was mostly black. I didn’t particularly notice if there were Hispanic or Asian faces in the crowd, whites were in the minority. It seemed like the proportions were 60%-40% or thereabouts. The crowd obviously appreciated dance, so why aren’t they attending performances of the Houston Ballet in greater numbers? Is it as simple as the lack of black dancers in the HB? Is it a failure of outreach, not advertising to diverse communities? I don’t have the answers, but I appreciated being in an audience with a diverse composition. I’d like to see that more at Houston Ballet.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Let's All Say a Prayer for Fatty Liver

Life has been on the crazy side for me lately. I will admit it, I'm over committed. The fact that a lot of those overcommitments are for things I really like, such as the ballet, the theater, yoga, quilting, friends, doesn't change anything. And this is a particularly bad time for me to be over committed, because I'm not feeling well.

It started last October, when one of my many doctors noticed that I had elevated liver enzymes and/or other bad test results for my liver. That started me on a four-month odyssey of going on and off various drugs to see if my test results would improve. The fact that I had several doctors independently trying to do this did not help the situation. In January, my rheumatologist took me off Azathioprine (generic for Immuran, an immune-suppressing drug that keeps my lupus in check).

The consequence of going off my main lupus med is that I have felt like crap pretty much ever since. One of the worst problems is the lupus fatigue. Forget getting a a good, 8-hour night's sleep. I could sleep for 12 hours and I would still be tired. Getting out of bed has become a major problem. I only succeed at all because my joints hurt so much by morning that I have to get up. I have resorted to going back to bed in the middle of the afternoon. I do not mean napping, I mean going to bed. It's depressing and I can't get anything done anymore.

After another round of bad tests in early February, I got sent to a liver specialist. Fortunately, I had one who already knew me. Did you know the docs who do colonoscopies are liver specialists? Me neither, but they are. So I went to see my gastric guy, who ordered many more tests and an ultrasound. I got his conclusions last Tuesday.

The tests identified two possibilities, neither one conclusive. Either I have a tragic liver disease or I'm too fat. This is not a joke. Plan A included me having a liver biopsy, but I've had a variety of biopsies before and know what they're like, so I declined, at least for the time being. Plan B, which assumes that I have what is known as Fatty Liver Disease, is that I must lose twelve pounds in three months and get tested again to see if that fixes the problem. If it does, the dread disease is off the table. Yee-haw for losing weight. The fact that I only have to lose twelve pounds to get out of the "overweight" category does not seem like I should be plagued with a fatty liver, but who am I to argue?

If it is not fatty liver, then it is probably Primary Biliary Cirrhosis, a progressive, auto-immune liver disease with no cure except a liver transplant, which of course is not considered until you are at the dying end of it. You can probably understand why I am rooting for the fatty liver disease. The fact that I have already got more than one auto-immune disease does not make me feel good about this, though. Time will tell.

It would be fair to say I am feeling depressed. Depression plus the lupus fatigue is hard to fight. If it turns out to be PBC, the treatment is the lupus medication which they took me off last month. I see that doc next week and I am hopeful that he will put me back on it now. That would help a lot.

The really bad thing is that I have had to cut out my drinking for the duration. Those of you who know me well are wondering why I say this, because I am scarcely a drinker at all. The thing is, after our trip to Costa Rica, I acquired the very best Costa Rican rum on the market - 20 year-old Centenario. I had taken to enjoying a sip or two over cracked ice a couple times a week, just savoring the delicious rum-ness of it. Sigh, no more fabulous rum for me, at least until I know what is wrong with my liver.

Anyone interested in some good rum? Come on over and I'll give you a wee bit. All you have to do in return is describe it to me while you're sipping it. Let's all hope that I turn out to have fatty liver. I will never complain about dieting again.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

My day in twenty minutes or less

I swear I wrote a post on Tuesday, just like I usually do. When I tried to publish it at 11:58 pm, my iPad ate it. I rewrote it. When I tried to publish that at 12:19 am, my iPad ate that, too. I give up. I'll try again tomorrow from my PC. Rotten iPad!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Half-full Kind of Woman

I am a cheerful person, an optimist, a half-full kind of woman. I have lived my life on these terms through thick and thin, seeing the bright side, the silver lining, and the light at the end of the tunnel without much trouble. That is not to say I don't get down, I don't worry about things. In fact, in a kind of Catch-22 joke on myself, I worry almost constantly, playing and replaying scenarios in my head, trying to get them right. This can be very helpful preparation for difficult encounters. It is less helpful when the events have already taken place, sometimes many years in the past.

 I don't think this is a split personality situation. I am a cheerful and optimistic person and I find it easy to express those positive emotions. I like to talk to other people, like to let my mind range free, and, in the course of those kind of encounters, positive, upbeat ideas flow forth from me quite naturally.

My dark side is quiet and keeps to itself. I don't usually share the thoughts and feelings that reside there. I don't like to give them a voice, I don't like to depress other people, or myself, by talking about them, and they are often worries rather than realities. However, they remain to plague me.

Mostly, I worry about them when I am not otherwise occupied. Alone, driving my car; during the meditation portion of a yoga class; sitting in an uninteresting lecture; trying to go to sleep at night. That's the worst. I rarely just go to bed and to sleep. I go to bed and read, sometimes, or play a game on one of my mindless devices.

 I play or read until I am falling asleep at the wheel, so to speak, then turn off the lights with the hope that I will in fact drift away to slumber land. I almost never do. As soon as my head hits the pillow, thoughts climb up out of the trenches where they have been hiding and begin lobbing thought grenades at me.

These thought grenades can be as recent as the doctor's visit I had yesterday or as remote as the fellow who ripped us off at Yellowstone National Park in 1988. The way they snake through my brain is a mystery, linkages of association so tenuous that I can hardly follow them. My brain has no problem, though, with jumping from connection to connection from the phone conversation I had today back to some seemly unrelated event from 20 years ago. The lesson I take from this is that nothing is unrelated.

Still, I am a cheerful person. I don't like to be in the position of considering unhappy events or situations. When people ask me about a difficult topic, like my health problems or my youngest daughter, I feel exposed and vulnerable. In talking about these things, I am liable to tear up and get a quaver in my voice.

Any intense emotion or situation can make my eyes fill up and my voice lose its deeper, mellower tones. I have choked up, teared up when reading my essays in public, when engaged in an energetic business transaction, and when making the public presentation of a gift to an associate. (It also happens quite regularly when I watch sappy movies on late-night TV, but I suspect that is a different category of response.)

These emotional events embarrass me, in part because I feel they embarrass other people who are present, and, often, they surprise me. Just when I am congratulating myself on my self-composure and my calm, cool demeanor, it cracks, I crack, and intense emotions that I may not even know I feel pour out like water from a breached dam. I have learned to keep a Kleenex tucked discretely at hand whenever I am in a situation that may bring about one of these moments.

I don't know why I am such a reluctant emoter. People who are self-confessed criers amaze me and cause me a bit of envy. There have been many times in my life when a good, old-fashioned crying stint would have made me feel much better and gotten me some emotional leverage. I don't cry in situations like those. Instead of being a crier, I am a leaker, and I leak when I would rather not let on that I am in distress. It is perverse.

As I age, I am becoming more accepting of this part of my nature. I am less apologetic about leaking sadness and that makes it easier for me. I am also happy that I often find myself in the company of women whose creative, artistic souls seem to me to be more accepting of these strong emotions than the more pragmatic individuals I encounter. Or maybe it is just because they are woman. It probably doesn't matter except that it is easier for me to be honestly emotional among my artist and writer friends than among almost anyone else. 

I want my life to be positive just like I want my home to be tidy. In a perfect world, I would have a place for everything and everything in its place, or, as the French say, mise en place. Living, as I do, in a less than perfect world, I don't always manage that. I haven't managed to avoid sadness and disappointment in my life either. When I know company is coming, I pick things up to make my house look the way I wish it looked all the time.  

When I invite people into my emotional home, I want things to look the way I wish they were, too, instead of how they actually may be - happy instead of sad, cheery instead of gloomy. And most of the time, they are happy and cheery. As I said in the beginning, I am a half-full kind of woman, cheerful and optimistic in my outlook on life. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Forgetting Myself in Theaters

I had several ideas for a topic over the last few days, but this morning, sitting at the Blue Planet Cafe with my writing buddies, none of them come to mind. This is a frequent turn of events in my life. I can't remember why I walked into the kitchen, I can't recall what I needed now that I am at Randalls, and, sometimes, I forget to meet friends with whom I've made plans.

For me this is not an age thing, although I usually blame it on a "senior moment." The truth is that I have been memory-impaired since I became ill with lupus. I have had twenty-two years to adjust to this impairment. The adjustment is not going well.

 Saturday, Michael and I had a lovely adventure downtown, attending the musical The Toxic Avenger at the Alley and the movie Pina at the new Sundance Theater. After the play, I saw a woman whom I recognized as someone in WiVLA, an organization I have belonged to for over ten years. She spotted me and engaged me in a cheerful conversation about mutual friends and WiVLA events, and she introduced me to her friend.

Michael stood nearby, but I turned my back on him and acted as if I had never seen him before. The reason for this rude behavior? I had no idea what the woman's name was and I did not want to have to introduce them. I guess I need a sign, like deaf people sometimes carry, announcing my impairment.

"I am memory-deaf. I cannot remember people, places, and things that ordinary people spit out like watermelon seeds. Please know that it is not personal and alleviate my total embarrassment by telling me your name when you say hello."

I do remember the play and the movie. Toxic Avenger underwhelmed me, although I laughed at many of the funny bits. The thing is, I kind of chuckled, and the rest of the audience, including Michael, guffawed. The humor was too broad for my tastes, too rooted in sexual innuendo. That is a lie; there was no innuendo. The musical employed flagrantly overt sexual humor throughout.

 Funny: a blind librarian shelving books without knowing what they were or noticing if they stayed on the shelf. Not really funny, the line, "If blind people don't love ugly people, who will?" Funny, the same actors playing multiple roles. Not really funny, broadly stereotyped roles that play off base characterizations. Funny, the actor playing the Mayor and the hero's Mother having a scene in which her two characters confront each other loudly and publicly. Not funny, the characterization of the middle-aged Mayor as a nymphomaniac who trades in sex to achieves her nefarious ends.

Enough of that. I did not really like TA. Perhaps my sense of humor is more refined than other people's are. Perhaps I have an underdeveloped sense of humor. Perhaps the loud music and deafening sound effects battered me too much. I don't know the answer. I just know that I did not find the entertainment at the Alley to be terribly entertaining.

I did enjoy every moment of Pina, though, a documentary movie memorializing the work of the late dancer/choreographer Pina Bausch. It is, brilliantly, a 3-D film. There may not be a better reason to make a 3-D movie than to portray dance. Instead of ghosts or goblins flying out of the screen at me, dancers flew, their fluid, lithe movements seeming to be hardly an arm's reach away from me. Beyond the artistry of the filmmaking, there is the artistry of the choreography and of the dancers.

One piece that affected me deeply is a dance in a cafe, staged with many empty tables and even more empty chairs. The dancers perform with their eyes closed, their safety in the hands of one man who darts here and there flinging chairs and tables out of their way to avert disaster. Of course, every fling has the potential to endanger another dancer, so that his actions are frantic and frenetic at the same time.

Another deeply affecting dance, which appeared and reappeared several times in the movie, anchoring it for me, involved little more than hand movements performed by dancers in a long, snaking, conga line. The movements originated in a performance by Pina in which she poetically describes each of the four seasons and illustrates the descriptions with appropriate hand motions.

Pina repeats these motions until they become a kind of shorthand for the seasons: winter, spring, summer, fall. In the performance, the dancers weave their way across stages and hillsides like a strand of golden thread woven through cotton fabric. The simplicity of their movements is spellbinding and emotionally complex.

Other memorable performances included one in which the stage was covered in rich, loamy dirt and another one where water rained down the dancers and gathered in pools where they danced with it. Another staggeringly emotional dance features a tethered dancer in a poured concrete room trying to dance her way out of confinement. Yet another featured a dancer on the floor moving away from a woman who steadily and unemotionally shoveled dirt on her. Talk about making a statement.

If you have not seen The Toxic Avenger, you are out of luck (or in luck, your choice) because tonight is the last performance in Houston. If you have not seen Pina, you are definitely in luck. It just opened last week and should be around for a while. Don't delay, though, because Houston is not particularly kind to art movies and it might disappear on you like a dancer going over the horizon.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Yoga Made Hard

Michael and I have been taking yoga classes off and on for about three years. On for five or six months, off for five or six months, then on again and so forth. The reasons we haven't been consistent has been lack of easy access to classes. Getting programs in our neighborhood has been spotty, with our yoga provider of choice, Texas Yoga Center, trying to establish a presence in Cypress and pulling out twice because of logistics problems or classes too small to support the venture.

For the last several months, we have had yoga at an outpost they set up at Natural Retreat and Spa about two miles from our house. You can't get much more convenient than that. The spa is what I would call a beauty shop, with the availability of massage services, facials, and other personal indulgences. Nowadays, that makes a beauty shop a spa. Perhaps my trip to Costa Rica and experiences at actual natural retreats with spas included has jaded me.

The people who work at the spa are very nice, though, and speak to us pleasantly when we come and go. They know our names. And they made over two small rooms into a large yoga room, which I appreciate. Taking classes at the outpost has been unpredictable. Who would be the teacher tonight? It could be any of several regulars or a completely unknown substitute. How many people would be there tonight? We might find a crowded room with eight or more people or it might just be Michael and I get a private lesson. The Texas Yoga Center decided that they couldn't live with the stress of these difficulties, so they pulled out the second time in eighteen months.

Their original location, where we started three years ago, is in Copperfield, our home community twenty years ago. It is perhaps eight miles away from us now, but the traffic between the two locations is terrible and it takes longer than it should to get there. We are often going to evening classes and by the time Michael gets home from work, we have dinner, and change into yoga clothes, we can't always get there on time. It just doesn't work very well for us and we want to be closer to home.

The spa people decided they would try to have their own yoga program, a good idea if for no other reason than they remodeled their shop and people were used to coming there. Unfortunately, they cut back classes to two evenings a week and no Saturdays. Taking classes two days apart with a five-day gap before the next class is not ideal, but the teacher they got, Jessica, is delightful and one of the best we've had, so we are trying to adapt. Jessica is quiet and encourages rather than pushes. She moves about the classes, adjusting poses, offering suggestions for more comfortable ways of getting into the same pose. She is very aware of different students' limitations and protects us from tackling poses that are too challenging.

Still, the Natural Retreat and Spa is still a beauty shop first. They cancelled this Monday's class because the stylists all went to a conference on Sunday and Monday, and no one wanted to come by and open up the shop that evening. In fact, the beauty shop is never open on Mondays, and the Monday classes are in constant jeopardy due to the inconvenience it causes for them.

Our yoga journey has progressed to the point where we feel deprived if we don't get classes on a regular basis, so Michael decided to try some other yoga studio. He searched a bit and found one three or four easy miles away and we tried it last night. Wow, it was the fanciest yoga studio I ever saw, occupying an entire very nice, very new home. (For non-locals, the Houston area doesn't believe in zoning, so if you are not in a planned community with deed restrictions, anything goes property-wise.)

The owner, Sharon, greeted us warmly. The interior had an open floor plan, displaying nice furnishing - professional, but cozy - and walls filled with shelves of every kind of Ayurvedic, alternative medicine, and yogic cultural items you could imagine. Sharon asked us to fill out new student forms, and then invited us on a tour of the establishment. (I should add, by way of clarification, that Michael had talked to her on the phone earlier in the day and told her about our various medical issues and limitations, including the fact that I have lupus.)

Sharon told us she practiced Ayurvedic medicine. She showed us her office, complete with a table for patients draped in an Indian print cloth. She showed us the kitchen, where green tea was available at all times and encouraged us to stay after class for tea and conversation with other students. She introduced us to four students sitting together and talking before class. She showed us another exam and treatment room for her practices of alternative medicine. Its walls were covered with bottles of herbs and pills neatly stacked on shelves. She took us down the hallway to another room that had, oddly, I thought, twin beds and regular bedroom furniture.

"This is for patients in detox," she said, adding that they offered a 21-day cleansing program. "Also, we have guest teachers who use it and sometimes our students just need a break from their home lives and they can come here to get away for a bit." Then, smooth as silk, she said, "You can detox here when you're ready. It is great for lupus."

The tour continued. What would have been a three-car garage was the yoga studio, very nicely equipped and full of students. We put our yoga mats on the shelves she indicated and continued the tour, seeing, on the opposite side of the house, rooms dedicated to massage and other types of personal care services such as color therapy and Reiki.  As we walked back towards the yoga studio, Sharon said, "Today you may watch me to see what I am doing and after that you keep your eyes closed during class." Tour finally complete, we went back to the yoga studio to prepare for class while Sharon changed clothes.

Michael and I each use two mats when we do yoga. We learned almost immediately in our yoga adventure that old knees do not like hard floors and we found it difficult to tolerate the hands-and-knees work without some extra help. We also each had a foam mat, the type one uses for gardening, to use on particularly knee-unfriendly poses, like cat/cow stretches. As we rolled our double mats, an unknown person in the back of the room called out, "Look, two mats!"

Not knowing if I was being addressed or laughed at, I answered as cheerily as I could, "Old knees need two mats." After a brief titter, the students began talking to each other again and no one except Sharon spoke to us the rest of the evening. Sitting there on my mat, I noticed that as students arrived they went to the cupboard and picked up large bolsters and woven blankets. Not knowing why, I just watched. I figured Sharon would tell us what we needed to know.

That proved to be incorrect. The bolsters were put into use almost immediately, so I got up during the practice and retrieved one for myself and another for Michael. We knew many of the poses Sharon included in the practice. She flowed from one pose to another at a quick pace, did not move among us adjusting poses as we had been used to, and directed us to do a number poses I had never seen before or considered doing in my wildest dreams. Balancing on one leg is okay and I can do that fairly well. Holding the raised leg straight out in front is more difficult, but I gave it the good old college try. Folding the extended leg back to the body and laying it on the opposite thigh exceeded my abilities considerably. Bending the entire body over into a one-legged front fold sent me into a seated pose on my mat, waiting for reason to return to the room.

I couldn't see many other students, so I don't know how well they did on these things, but Sharon very easily and smoothly performed a series of yogic feats that simply defeated me. The culmination came when she had us extend from a seated lotus position - feet placed on top of the opposite thighs - and place the top of our heads on the floor. I am actually quite limber, so I could do that. Then she had us rock forward so we were on our hands, our knees and our heads, still in a lotus position. Next, the legs unfolded and the knees went to the elbows. I quit there, while Sharon went on to stand on her hands and head while her body balanced above her.

Thankfully, the session ended shortly thereafter. Sharon directed us into corpse pose - laid out on one's back, feet dropped to the side and arms alongside the body, palms up. It is the ultimate relaxation pose in yoga and at that moment, my sweaty, stressed body felt entirely corpse-like. She instructed us to cover ourselves. Ah, that was what the woven blankets were for. Not long after Sharon dimmed all the lights, I felt the soft caress of a blanket cover me from chest to toes. It felt nice.

When class was over, I looked around the shelves while Michael paid our fees. The merchandise included stones and crystals, prayer wheels, yoga mats, Ayurvedic soap, herbs, yoga clothing, and many other items related to yoga, Ayurveda, and alternative medicine. As soon as Michael had paid, we left. We were both quiet. I didn't want to find out that Michael loved the place, because I felt profoundly unsettled by it. He asked me what I thought; I bounced the question back to him. In the end, all I could think of to sum up my feelings was, "She's no Jessica."

When we arrived home five minutes later, I turned on my iPad to check email. I had some new messages, including one from Sharon. She welcomed me to yoga class and offered several other services available for purchase at her studio. "Look at this," I said to Michael. He looked and shrugged, replying, "Well, she is in business." The Natural Retreat and Spa is in business, too. And Texas Yoga Center is in business. I just never noticed it when I did business with them.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Quilting Moonglow

Friday night I started quilting Moonglow, the very elaborate, paper-pieced quilt that I started in a Block-of-the-Month class in 2010. The top (which I displayed in an album on my Facebook page if you'd like to look at it) gave me a severe approach-avoidance complex when I first saw it.

Beautifully designed, the blocks are a cross between the mariner's compass and ancient drawings of the stars and sun. Each block seemed more detailed and difficult than the last. I had never paper-pieced, a process by which one sews the fabric onto actual pieces of paper. I had never attempted any quilt block as complicated as the simplest of these blocks. And, I had never seen such a beautiful quilt. I had to do it and I felt terrified at the same time.

 The teacher, Carrol Stewart, was also an unknown quantity to me, although I quickly discovered her strengths as a teacher and taskmaster. Carrol had impeccable quilting credentials and as a bonus was a whiz at nudging recalcitrant sewing machines into behaving. She had owned a quilt shop and sold sewing machines before her retirement and she had all the skills needed plus a great personality for a teacher. I can just hear her saying, "Now, look here, darlin' ... " which indicated you were about to get a lesson that included ripping out stitches.

 Over a year's time, I learned my lessons fairly well and Carrol was often willing to sit and rip stitches for me while I re-sewed defects. She taught me how to miter borders and generally coaxed me along until I had a beautiful, I-can't-believe-I-made-this, quilt top. With her help, I found the perfect backing for my quilt, then took everything home and put it in a drawer.

 I told myself that I had other quilts to finish before I could start this one, but the truth is that quilting it daunted me as much as constructing it had in the first place. There was just so much to quilt. Whenever I looked at it, I saw the thousands of stitches I would have to sew in laboriously and I balked at even starting. Didn't I know the obvious that if you didn't start you would never finish? Well, of course, I did, but I had my excuses - other quilt projects to finish.

Nine months later, I had caught up on the projects that were ahead of Moonglow and I still didn't want to commit myself to hand quilting it. For a time, I considered paying Carrol to machine quilt it for me. I had seen her work plenty of times and she did a marvelous job of machine quilting, whether a simple, computer-driven pattern or a complex, hand-guided pattern. But I hand-quilted all my quilts. After all the work I put into making Moonglow, would I be selling myself short to let someone else quilt it?

I considered machine quilting it myself, on my own little sewing machine, not a top-of-the-line long-arm quilting machine like Carrol had. I even took a class on machine quilting which helped to reduce my anxiety about it, but which also taught me that I would need a tremendous amount of practice with machine quilting before I could do a job nearly good enough for Moonglow.

Two weeks ago, I finally took the plunge and purchased the wool batting that would make hand quilting a much more pleasant job because needles glide through it so effortlessly. Then I spent an evening at Quilt Til You Wilt making my quilt sandwich. This past Friday, I wrestled the first stitches into the quilt top. It is always difficult for me to get started with my needle and thread. Quilting has a kind of rhythm and at the beginning, I don't know the music I will be dancing to with the particular quilt in hand.

I spent several hours on Monday quilting with Alix and now have the first block 3/4th finished. I estimate it will take me 8 to 10 hours per block to hand-quilt it. There are 25 blocks, plus a large border made of seven different fabrics, so, if I work on it regularly, I should be able to finish it in six months or so. I always underestimate the finishing, like adding the binding, but I certainly will have it done by next Christmas.

 Alix and Adam are getting Moonglow. For a long time, I thought I couldn't give it away after doing so much work on it, but I am over that now. There are other quilts to make and I can't keep all of them in a house with only two beds!    

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

My Costa Rica

What can one claim to know about a foreign country after a ten-day tour? A few place names. Ten days worth of climate. Cultural expressions as shown by public displays and decorations. Some of the wildlife. Some of the accommodations. Several of its people. It is not a comprehensive understanding of anything, except, perhaps, the discomfort of tour busses. Yet I feel that the vacation tour Michael and I took to Costa Rica over the Christmas holidays gave me something more profound than an assortment of facts or impressions.

I own a small piece of that lovely country now. I own a small piece of its verdant jungle, populated by creatures as familiar as the Houston Zoo, yet completely unknown to me. My first day in Tortuguero, a place you can reach only by boat or by airplane, our tour guides pointed out barely distinguishable animals in the trees that towered over us. Like the moose pictures my father took on every camping trip it seemed, there was something back there in the trees, but you could never prove it from the photographs.

The next morning the raucous screams of howler monkeys startled me from sleep at dawn and hustled me outside for a look. I did not find moose-picture monkeys that morning, I found MONKEYS in the trees right over my head. Monkeys that were kind of scary, busy with their own lives, and totally unimpressed with human beings. I own a piece of those monkeys now. I own a piece of their wildness, a piece of their self-absorption with the daily business of staying alive, and a piece of their loud, challenging howl at the world.

I own a small piece of the Caribbean people who live in Tortuguero. Not a piece of the old fellow bored by his duties at the cash register of the gift shop in that tiny town, but a piece of the young man who pushed the coconut cart through the village. The occasional coconut was an odd treat that my family enjoyed in North Dakota, so far from   the thought of palm trees. Dad would pound a nail through the three little circles at the top of the coconut and pour the milk out for whoever was lucky enough to get it that day, then smash the hard shell with a hammer, letting us gnaw the white fruit off the pieces that resulted.

When I realized that the young man sold coconut milk from his cart, I went over immediately, clutching two dollar bills in my fist like a child. I really only wanted the coconut milk, the elusive sweetness I remembered from childhood, but the young man expected me to choose a flavoring for two dollars more. In my practically non-existent Spanish, I tried to tell him that the plain milk would suit me fine. Perhaps he understood me, perhaps not, but I understood his Spanish when he told me that I reminded him of his mother and that he wanted to add the strawberry flavoring to my coconut milk at no charge, an offer I graciously accepted. I own a piece of that young man's shy courtesy and generosity.

I own a small piece of the artisan crafts of Costa Rica. Not the mass-produced, made for tourists knick-knacks available in every shop we visited, but the handcrafted glass frogs and dragonflies offered at a restaurant where we ate lunch on one of our travel days. The woman artist melted and spun the glass from rods of varying colors, creating the tiny creatures as we watched that her son sold and packaged from a table nearby. I own a small piece of her artistic pride and satisfaction in conjuring such tiny beauties with her own creative hands.

I own a small piece of Costa Rica's much touted educational system. We did not visit a local school, as our itinerary said we might, because our trip coincided with summer vacation and school was out. Nevertheless, our tour guide, Aaron Salazar, demonstrated its efficacy every time he spoke to us about the natural world of Costa Rica. Aaron has three college degrees. One is in theology and one is in taxonomy, the study of scientific classification. (The third I never learned.)

Aaron did not share theological information with us, although his reverence for the natural world bespoke a deep, personal spirituality. However, he did explain complex layers of animal and plant relationships and symbioses. In fact, he explained some scientific principles better than any of my science teachers ever had. Aaron imbued the relationship between the three-toed sloth and the moth that lives parasitically on it with soap opera-like details. He illustrated species classification by building us a town with his words and creating neighborhoods, streets, and houses with many rooms to organize and define the occupants. Standing over a large anthill, he told us as much about the anteater as about the ants.

Aaron's lessons for us clearly exceeded anything he had learned from rote. It was an unanticipated bonus. I own a small part of Costa Rica's educational system, the part that trained this young man in science and taught him such good English one could scarcely call it a second language.

I claim ownership of a small part of Costa Rica, the part where Michael and I enjoyed each other's company without giving a thought to the details of travel. The part where I spent an entire day lounging poolside on a beach chair without thinking about how I looked in my bathing suit or feeling guilty about monopolizing a scarce commodity. The part with buffet tables groaning under the weight of delicious foods. The part where the server asked us, "Coffee or chocolat?" after every meal, delighting my non-coffee drinking self with plentiful and scrumptious hot cocoa. The part where we swung gently in hammocks while reading our Kindles. The part where we both received a long, relaxing massage with wonderfully scented oils and Enya playing in the background.

What can one claim to know about a foreign country after a ten-day tour? Enough to treat my experiences like treasure, to cherish the small pieces of Costa Rica I have stored in my heart.

By the way, Caravan Travel organized and supervised our wonderful trip to Costa Rica and I recommend them highly to anyone who wants a trouble-free tour experience.