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.