Wednesday, March 28, 2012

How To Suck At Yoga

Most of you know that I abhor working out with the burning passion of a thousand white hot suns. Sure, I enjoy the byproducts of exercise: health, better sleep, not looking like a narwhal in a tank top, but by and large I am a lazy bastard and my preferred method of exercise is jogging my memory to remind myself how much I fucking hate to exercise then lying on the couch watching “19 Kids And Counting”.  Admittedly, I am a better mom when I exercise.  I don’t know if it’s the endorphins or just the time away from them but an hour on the treadmill makes my short people significantly less annoying somehow.  Sadly, despite my hearty protestations and raging sense of denial, my knees are 41 years old and they can only take so much pounding.*

*That’s what she said.

My friend Kelly is really into yoga, as is her hippy-dippy husband, Todd.  Kell swears that yoga is a panacea for all ailments, both physical and psychological, but then again she also subscribes to the whole gingko-biloba-feng-shui-free-range mentality that all things organic and alternative are good and all things processed and FDA-approved are bad.  To me, this kind of thinking is more simplistic than the plot line of an ABC Family series, but to each their own.  I guess I can see why yoga would be appealing to many: you gain flexibility, meditate on your breathing, and possibly learn how to go down on yourself.  That may actually be the reason why it’s so calming.  God knows if most men could lick their own balls there would be a lot less violence in this world.

So I went to a Bikram yoga session with Kelly and all I can say is Ho.  Ly.  Shit.  Never again, folks.  First of all, I was crammed in that room for over an hour, nose to nuts with the unwashed masses, breathing in their unmentionables whilst squatting with arms entwined like an orangutan with osteoporosis.  The last time I was in that position was 41 years ago in the womb.  And the smell?   The room stank of a hearty amalgam of asparagus, patchouli, and tacos.  And as there was no actual food present in said room I could only surmise that it was the heady stank mélange of 35 people in a 160 degree room.  Granted, I did feel pretty tall and Stretch Armstrong-y after class but as the only thing I loathe more than exercise is social interaction, I decided I could practice yoga in the privacy of my own home.


Sit quietly on your mat and stare into space.  Close your eyes partially and find a spot on the carpet or wall to gaze upon. Continue to stare at the spot.  Think about the spot.  How did it get there?  Will it come off?  Who made the spot?  Oh, shit, there’s another one.  How did that spot get on the. . .oh yeah, that’s where I tripped last week and spilled my coffee.  Mmmm, I could use a cup of coffee right now.  Ooh!  And one of those cake pops from Starbucks!  I wonder if. . .what?  Oh, yeah.  Clear my mind. . .stare at the spot. . .shit, I need to clean that off.


Find a phrase to listen to in your head to better gain enlightenment
Try to choose something Buddhist-y and repetitive like Om Mani Padme Hum (“All Hail the Jewel In the Lotus”), or Brong Brong (“I Am Imitating a Doorbell).  You may wonder if monotonous droning can be at all effective or fulfilling, but it seems to have worked quite well for Tom Brokaw and Nancy Grace over the years.  Those are two enlightened mofos.


As you raise your arms think “I am lifting, I am raising”.  When you walk, think to yourself “I am lifting my foot.  I am placing it down, I am shifting.  I am moving”.  This practice is also quite effective in other areas of life.  For example, riding the bus.  “I am shoving.  I am scowling.  I am giving the stink eye to the douchewand hogging two seats”.  Or shopping.  “I am spending.  I am ignoring my financial obligations.  I am putting my needs first.”  Just remember to take joy in each step.  Remember, the path is the goal and the journey is the destination. . .especially on the bus.


Throughout history yogis have spent hours clearing their minds by pondering such questions as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”*

*A kind of whooshy, smacky sound, but you have to do it really fast.

 or “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”*

*Technically, no. All sound is sensory receptors in your ears that perceive vibrations in the air around them that your brain perceives as sound.  Therefore, sound only exists if there is an organism present to take that stimulus and turn it into a thought process that perceives sound.  Otherwise, the tree just makes empty vibrations.  What?  Shut up, I am not a geek. 

For me, I tend to focus on the truly unanswerable questions such as “How did ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ get renewed for another season?” or “What’s the deal with Kevin Costner?” That shit can really blow your mind, yo.


Begin with a simple contemplation, the Sutra of Breath.  On each inhalation think “I am breathing in.  I am taking in oxygen.  I am calming my breath”.  If you start to feel tightening in your chest and a roaring in your ears, exhale.  This is known as the Sutra for Not Passing Out.  Then begin to count your breath.  Tell yourself “I am numbering my breathes. I am mindful of the number.”  If you’ve been breathing for a while and the number doesn’t get higher or you lose count that’s OK.  This is known as the Sutra of I Was Told There Would Be No Math.  Finally, do not forget to freshen your breath.  Be ever mindful of oral hygiene and the liberal application of Tic Tacs.  This is known as the Sutra of Having Garlic Chicken for Lunch.


Recite to yourself “I am flexible.  I am a bending willow. I am strong.”  Then cross your legs, positioning your feet atop your thighs.  This is known as the Lotus Position or padmasna, which is Sanskrit for “Holy shit, I have just dislocated my femur”.  Once feet are in place, pull your toes in as far as possible while saying Namu Bai Datsu which is Sanskrit for “I am not flexible.  I am not a fucking willow. I am in need of urgent medical care.”  Do not panic.  You may never walk again, but you are now in perfect harmony with the universe.  Huzzah!

I get the basic concept of yoga.  It teaches one to unify the mind and body, while separating the self from attachments such as dignity and self-respect when seen doing a Downward Dog with your junk hanging out.  But for me, the thought of that much time inside of my head is terrifying.  I’m a twisted, hot mess up there, y’all.  One hour of silent contemplation for me is like watching a six-hour David Lynch/Quentin Tarantino film fest and no one comes out alive.  So in the meantime I’ll keep puttering along on my treadmill, ignoring my aching joints, and seeking my own Path of Enlightenment through my Holy Trinity of Starbucks, Target, and Nathan Fillion.  Namaste, party people.

PS: For those of you who didn't know, yesterday was Nathan Fillion's birthday.  I hope you all celebrated accordingly.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Red Dress Playlist: "Runaway Train"

A few weeks back, I started a self-improvement project, inspired by Jenny Lawson, the Great Bloggess.  To read about the origin of my project, look here.  For the short version, each week I will set out to conquer something that is holding me back from being the person I want to be.  A relationship, a memory, a fear. . .anything that makes me less than I am.  I will attack each challenge wearing my red dress as a cape for inspiration and as a symbol of the superheroes we all are inside. My goal is to undertake the daunting task of taking one crazy, neurotic, and mentally unstable woman and molding her into a productive member of our crazy, neurotic, and mentally unstable society.

I walk past them every day odowntown.  I see them sprawled on the sidewalks, loitering in the lightrail stations, laughing animatedly with their friends in the downtown courtyard.  They catch my eye and ask for change.  Most days, I avert my gaze, pretending to fumble for my keys, my phone; anything to avoid interaction.  I feel equal parts angry and ashamed that I am made to feel so awkward and aloof.  They are Portland's homeless youth, and at last count there were between 2000-3000 of them, each with their own story...their own dream...their own history.  Today I didn't walk by.  Today I stopped to speak with one of them in an attempt to better understand what draws someone to a life on the streets.

Her name was "Lucy".  Lucy is nineteen years old and dreams of being disciovered on 'American Idol'.  She grew up in a home riddled with both physical and sexual abuse and by the time she was five years old, Lucy would sneak out of the house to sleep in the park; the only "safe" place she knew.  When she was seven, her parents were arrested for drug abuse and criminal negligence and Lucy and her siblings wound up in foster care.  Despite living in about twenty different homes and attending twelve different school, Lucy is proud of the fact that she earned her high school diploma last year.  She is the only member of her family to do so.

"After graduation I was placed at a group home." Lucy stated. "It was cool and the staff was pretty nice. I stayed there for about six months until I got caught with weed. They said they were going to kick me out. I thought that was unfair because it was nothing big. It was only weed. I was mad so I went upstairs, packed my bag and left. I took the bus to my friend’s house and camped out there 'til she bounced...then I just kinda found myself here."

On her first day on the streets, Lucy went into a Starbucks’s and met a guy who let her stay in his apartment for a while.  "It wasn't a biggie" Lucy shrugged. "I've fucked guys for dumber shit, so fucking one for a place to live was cool". Then Lucy went to the Portland Rescue Mission shelter. “It was a horrible, horrible place,” she said. She said there was a lot of crime and molestation and she wanted something safer.  She went to the library to google information about women's shelters and put her namae on the waiting lists for three of them.  But the lists are long and beds are limited.  In the interim, Lucy remains on the street.

"I pretty much spend my day getting high", she laughs. "When I'm not high I hang out at the mall or the library; you can catch a nap at the corner tables there and nobody gives you shit.  At night I sleep at the park in the slide -- you know, the one that's like a big tube?  It's warmer in there.  Or I cop a squat under the bridge like today."

Lucy admits that life on the streets is not ideal, but she loves how accepted and welcomed her fellow street friends have made her feel.  

"These motherfuckers may smell like piss and shit but they are the best friends I've ever had" Lucy cries while fist-bumping one of her buddies. "If you need a hit, or a clean shirt, or just someone to bitch at these guys are there.  They're down, 'cuz they know what it's like.  They get it."

Lucy is hopeful that a bed will open soon at one of the womens shelters she applied to, but is pretty philosophical about her life.  "It's like that Ice Cube movie 'Friday', you know?  When he says 'You win some,  you lose some, but you live. You live to fight another day.' My past is part of me. It will follow me wherever I go, but hopefully someday it will be put in the past. Most times I don’t regret living on the streets because it's made me wiser. I know what I have to do to survive. But somedayI’m going to get a job and be somebody.  I'm gonna be so famous that everyone will love my ass!"

Like many of her companions, Lucy lives life with a "Fuck you, leave me alone because I can do it myself" mentality.  She makes enough money to eat and score weed by panhandling and occasionally selling t-shirts at a friend's booth at the Saturday Market.  One weekend she met a young man playing guitar and she began singing along with him.  Another Saturday market vendor heard her beautful voice and gave her a second-hand guitar that she is now learning to play.

"When things get shitty, my music makes it all go away" she said with a shy smile. "Someday I'm going to take REAL lessons and try out for American Idol or The Voice or some shit like that.  Someday EVERYBODY is gonna know my name."  Despite her current circumstances, Lucy has an extremely positive attitude toward life.  "I don't walk around telling everybody I'm homeless.  I don't smell and I keep pretty clean so a lot of people tell me I don't look 'street'.  I'm proud of that, but I'm not ashamed to be 'street' either; street people are the only one's who won't stab you in the back.  We're family."

When asked about her biological family, Lucy had less to say.  "Fuck them.  They didn't care about me so I don't care about them.  I don't even know if they're still alive or dead and I don't give a shit either way."

Talking with Lucy opened my eyes to the prevalence of homelessness in my own backyard.  Many of these young men and women come from similar backgrounds of abuse, addiction, and neglect.  Thousands of them suffer from mental and physical disabilities and are simply unable to find placement in state facilities.  And still more are in a constant holding pattern; waiting for a bed to open at a shelter, waiting for the next dollar from a passerby, waiting for that golden opportunity to escape life on the streets and make their mark on the world.  Before I left, I bought Lucy and her friends a bag of bagels from the neighboring bakery and asked her if there was anything else she thought I should know.  She grinned at me around a mouthful of bread and said "We aren't invisible.  We matter."  Thank you, Lucy.  I see that now.


Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Red Dress Playlist: "What if God was One of Us?"

A few weeks back, I started a self-improvement project, inspired by Jenny Lawson, the Great Bloggess.  To read about the origin of my project, look here.  For the short version, each week I will set out to conquer something that is holding me back from being the person I want to be.  A relationship, a memory, a fear. . .anything that makes me less than I am.  I will attack each challenge wearing my red dress as a cape for inspiration and as a symbol of the superheroes we all are inside. My goal is to undertake the daunting task of taking one crazy, neurotic, and mentally unstable woman and molding her into a productive member of our crazy, neurotic, and mentally unstable society.

Muslims.  What does that word do in you. . . to you?  What images come to mind when you hear the word "Muslim"?  The Qur'an help aloft?  The World Trade Center collapsing?  The American flag being burned in effigy?  I am not distant from these preconceived notions, but feel the need to address them and reconcile my reactionary thoughts with my faith as a Christian.  Passing along the hate-filled e-mails, posting anti-Muslim videos and articles, and swearing vengeance may be cathartic, and may be common and expected behaviors for people with no religious affiliation, but it is not acceptable behavior for anyone who has a belief in a Higher Power and a spiritual connection to the world.  Besides, as someone with a well-established "screw you, I can think for myself" type of mantra, relying on conspiracy theories and misinformation to form my beliefs is not really an option.  Concerning Muslims, I was tangentially tolerant; no real feelings or emotions one way or the other.  So, I decided that it was time for me to form some of my own opinions; to do some "homework" and ensure that my beliefs were in alignment with my faith.  So, I asked my friend Rachel if I could join her for worship at the mosque in Southwest Portland.

Since I was feeling a little nervous, I asked my friend Kelly to come along with me as she is the one person I know with more balls than brains and will therefore go along with my random dickery.  Rachel asked us both to bring scarves to cover our heads and I dressed in what would have been appropriate at my church.  Of course, as I tend to dress like an aging game show hostess, my wardrobe choice proved to be highly inappropriate.

Kelly got to the mosque first and called me on my cell.  "Dude, I am dressed WAY wrong.  I've gotta go home and change".

"Umm, I'm wearing sequins and heels.  Do you think that's OK?"  I asked.

Kelly laughed (or was hard to tell).  "Yeah, that should be fine. . .you'll be the perfect example when they preach about WHORES!  Seriously, Jen.  These people look uber-conservative."

"Shit", I muttered. "There's no time to change.  We'll have to wing it."

When I pulled into the parking lot and saw the people filing in, I understood Kelly's concern.  Women were arriving in the most beautiful and colorful outfits.  Long tops, covered arms and legs, and scarves so snug to their faces that not a hair was showing.  Kelly looked at me helplessly but as "Let's not do this" does not exist in my vocabulary, I told her to nut up and we made our way to the entrance.

"Are you visitors?" we were asked again and again as it was glaringly obvious that everything about Kelly and myself screamed DOES NOT BELONG!  We met Rachel at the door and she led us past the dining hall to the Cleansing Room.*

*I'm sorry for the lack of pictures, but photography was forbidden so I'll do my best to describe the mosque's interior.

In the Cleansing Room each body part is washed in sequence (hands, wrists, forearms, elbows, faces, hairline, feet, and ankles) and an associated prayer is uttered with each washing.  If, during the process, you need to use the bathroom or if you touch a member of the opposite sex, you must start the cleansing process again.  This is a very clean group of people.  Rachel then took us along the side entrance to the women's area of the mosque.*

*In 3/4 of the mosques in America, the women and men are separated.

We removed our shoes and donned our scarves.  Mine was pretty damned pathetic and just sort of draped the back of my head like a retro-Catholic schoolgirl but there were spare robes and scarves for Kelly and me to borrow so that all of our requisite body parts were covered.  We sat in the back of the women's section with Rachel, who answered our questions and explained the rituals.

The imam (literal translation: "man in front") led the prayer sequence.  While standing and bowing, the individual prayers are rote; when the forehead is on the ground, the most humble position to Allah, personal prayers are offered.  After about 30 minutes of prayer, we filed out to the dining area to feast.  Men entered through one door and women and children through another.  Tables were lined up down the center of the room, dividing the sexes.  The women at my table were gracious, engaging, and friendly, and although most were Middle Eastern, they represented a myriad of cultures and ethnicities.  We talked about what brought them to the U.S., their native education, how their children adapted to the American schools, and how they struggled to separate who they are as Muslims from the destruction caused by extremists.  Every question we asked was answered openly and honestly and there was not one moment of tension or discomfort.

This looks exactly like what we were served.  That food was cray-cray good, yo!

After dinner it was time for Round Two of evening prayers.  Kelly was tired and getting cranky so she said goodnight and I prepared to reenter the prayer room.  As it was, I never made it as I got caught up in conversation with one of my dining companions; a young woman from Jordan.

"We are a peaceful people"  she said softly, "9/11 was not a fair representation of the Muslim faith...we are called to live in peace above all things."

I was curious as to the differences between her faith and mine.  To a Muslim, Mohammed is the Final Messenger of promise by Allah and spoken of by Jesus.  Unlike The Christian faith, the Muslim religion is one of law and politics rather than just a religious methodology.  In the U.S., we separate politics, law, and religion; Islamic nations blend all three -- they are inseparable.  So when one suggests burning the Qur'an, it is as though they were burning the American flag, the Bible, AND the Constitution.  When people suggest that the U.S. will only allow a mosque at Ground Zero when "they" allow a church in Saudi Arabia they do not fully understand the dichotomy.  Our democracy stands independent of our religion; it can still exist with many forms of worship inside of it.  In Islamic countries, Islam is the government and the religion and is not tolerant of different ideologies.  For Muslims emigrating to the U.S., this can be a difficult adjustment.  They can bring their religion, but must find a way to separate it from their laws and political views.

"I know that many people hate us" my dining companion bluntly stated "but we are not all terrorists.  People have done horrible things based on the Bible as well but that doesn't mean Christians are bad people either.  It is not the authors of the Books that are the problem -- it is the readers of the Books."

As we were speaking, an older woman approached and whispered to me, "Please cover your pretty hair, your bangs are showing. And please place your feet on the ground; your ankles and legs are showing and you are distracting a man.  This is a courtesy in our mosque.  Thank you very much."  I apologized and quickly covered myself.

As the evening drew to a close, I thanked my hosts, gave Rachel a hug, and drove home deep in thought.  How well had I thought of Muslims before my visit?  Not very well.  It is neither fair nor accurate to point to a radical sector of a group and assume that the entire group displays those traits. We all have our fanatics.  Hitler cut and pasted the Bible to suit his needs just as Osama Bin Laden quoted the Qur'an verses about war and not the ones espousing peace and the dictate to never take an innocent human life.  Bin Laden did not speak for the millions of peaceable Muslims any more than Hitler spoke for most Christians.  So, how do I repackage that information and fit it into my Christian beliefs?  I can only govern my own thoughts and actions.  I can take the time to learn about other cultures and religions; I can show kindness in the public arenas, respect and yearn to understand divergent faiths, and draw upon our similarities to stop the misunderstandings and prejudices.  The commonalities are there if you just look for them.

I don't see my visit to the mosque as the "end goal" to this week's Red Dress Challenge.  The end goal is to continue to communicate with honor, and to live in peace with different cultures and faiths.  Who knows?  They might actually see something irresistible in me as well. . .besides my ankles.