Monday, November 29, 2010

Cooking in Madagascar

I lie in my bed, listening to the well-timed symphony that accompanies my neighbor Edwige’s preparation of her family’s morning meal. First, a splash of diesel to charcoal. Five-fifteen. Second, a greedy whoosh of flame. Five-sixteen. Third, the creaking of metal stove handle as Edwige arcs the stove from side to side, oxygenating the coals. Five-twenty. The dull thud of rice hitting cooking pot becomes audible, followed by a trickle of water from the spigot. Before six o’clock, a glutenous slab of rice porridge emerges triumphant. In more prosperous economic times, it would have been crowned by few pieces of charred zebu meat-protein for a morning which will be spent working the cotton fields. The inhabitants of Madagascar, it has been reported, consume the highest per capita quantity of rice in the world. The actual word for “to eat” is mihininambary” Translation: ‘to eat rice.'

I have never been late to teach my English classes at the local high school--the sounds serve as a sort of natural alarm clock.

“Kamo-e!” Edwige yells into my apartment as she shuffles around the cooking patio area. Edwige knows I am awake, listening to her as she prepares breakfast. In a northwestern dialect “kamo-e!” is a rough translation for “you’re lazy”.

“Tsy kamo aho!” I retort, as confidently as I can muster at six o’clock in the morning.

I am not lazy!

Edwige laughs heartily.

Buildings here in St. Claire, Madagascar are porous, malleable, their artifices easily penetrated by both the vagaries of nature and the insistence of curious neighbors. Edwige’s meals leak through my walls. Life here is lived out loud and privacy is a four-letter word. Things have a way of finding their way in whether you want them to or not: the people, the food, the fevers, the smoke, the dreams. People from my town would not understand why anybody would want to be alone. Here, they have a saying: “Cross in a crowd, and the crocodile won’t eat you.” I agree with this. I do not like to eat alone.

Edwige is right. I would not try to light my stove this morning. I would stop at the market for a breakfast of single fried doughnut and a small cup of whole milk yogurt on my way to school. There is a food stall rigged with both an electrical outlet and a refrigerator. In the early morning cool, the little pot yaourt slides down the gullet like liquid gold. I stand in front of the refrigerator and feel its frosty breath sweep over my toes. Maybe I will stop along the dusty road that leads to the school, which will soon be populated by hundreds of youngsters in pale blue shirts, to buy a cone of fresh roasted peanuts from one of the neighbors.

For the first few months, I had the luxury of a gas stove for my culinary needs, sitting on top of four concrete blocks. It was hooked to a red gas bottle via a rubber hose over which I was constantly running a mixture of bubbly, soapy water to check for leaks. During this period, dinner was a bountiful orgy of leafy greens, green mangos, yellow mangos, tomatoes, onions, garlic, rice, and dry white beans. At that time, I still cringed at the thought of the ground zebu meat from the market. I did not believe the prevailing local wisdom, namely the conception that the same pounding Malagasy sun that pounds the dampness from hanging laundry--ten minutes, tops, on a clothesline hanging above the concrete pavement--would stealthily sanitize the zebu meat. And chicken: the thought of me purchasing, beheading, decapitating and plucking a chicken on my own would have put the stove-sitting to shame. My inadvertent vegetarianism would eventually be cured by the discovery of grilled brochette and chicken stalls in the market. Topped with tart, shredded mango called lasary, they were heaven, Shangri-La and nirvana rolled into one compact and delicious package. I realized how my gas range allowed me to live in a sort of symbiotic limbo where I was preparing local meals, with local foods and dining on delectable grilled meats twice a week. I felt independent. I felt self-sufficient. I was in control.

Then, one evening, disaster. My precious gas bottle sputtered a murmur of capitulation as I prepared a pot of rice. This was not surprising, especially given my predilection for long-cooking tsaramaso (a tasty hodgepodge of cannellini-esque beans boiled with olive oil, onion, garlic and tomatoes). Shortly thereafter, a civil war would erupt. Soon, there were no more gas bottles for foreign English teachers. In due time, there were no more gas bottles for hospitals, government buildings and buses.

For those born and bred in the West, the Madagascan stove seems like an alien contraption, a small stool or settee--a forced marriage between a dark metal bowl and several cans of green beans which, incidentally, are a delicacy in these parts (as is anything which must be transported hundreds of miles from the capital city, at the peril of quicksand roads and underfed bandits). I embarrassed myself during my first trip to our local market, a huge and magical sprawl of wooden stalls and ladies wrapped in colorful cloths called lambahoanies when I decided to sit down atop a stove, actually believing it to be a stool. My bottom would recover eventually, though the ego-damage would be of a more longstanding variety.

That was nearly six months ago.

Despite an elapsed time of nearly one-half a year, I still find it impossible to entice any sort of flame from the contraption without the assistance of thousands. Edwige’s six year old daughter is more proficient in lighting the stove than I. My resistance is psychological. To relinquish my cooking method is to relinquish my identity, no? For all I know, Edwige might as well be a wizard, tossing in eye of newt, wing of bat, whispering one ancient and magical incantation to entice flames from the nameless void. There’s gotta be something more to this, I keep telling myself. Something I’m not getting. Some secret little trick to make the lighting process fly by faster than a hot knife through fresh zebu lard.

But I am American. In America, there are microwaves. There are take-outs and TV dinners; our bodies are fueled by preservative-laden, chemically enhanced foods that keep us going and never let us down until, well, they do. To abridge the process of cooking is to bring freedom and spontaneity to life. If Betty Crocker is freedom, then Beef Wellington is entrapment. To spend at least half an hour just attempting to light a stove before the commencement of any type of cooking would be regarded as highly odd. I am an American and Americans, I’ve found, enjoy shortcuts, circumventing process, at times to the detriment of our long-term spiritual growth. I have never felt better than I did away from cheesy pizza, gooey lasagna and Doritos by the handful. True, for the first few months I had violent, Technicolor dreams of swimming through gooey pizza, climbing my way to the top of a mountain of cheese, sailing in a river of chocolate sauce and ice cream and maraschino cherries. Shortly thereafter, they abated and never returned.

The courtyard light highlights Edwige’s silhouette on a white wall, as I emerge for the day in my homemade polyester dress, dark blue with gathered shoulder pads. Edwige is chasing a chicken around with a sharp knife. She is an imposing presence, now arcing her stove back and forth, preparing the flame for some delicious poulet au coco, chicken in soupy coconut broth. Around ten-thirty in the morning, the kids will be back for lunch and she will be ready. Edwige reminds me of a popular creation myth, swinging her paintbrush back and forth to color the heavens, flecking out enough flaming coals to make the stars. In this exhilarating and sometimes deeply confusing place, Edwige serves as a sort of guide.

“Handeha hampianatra?” yells Edwige, as I emerge from the stall. She stands in the courtyard, holding, by the neck, the limp body of a chicken. “Are you going to teach?”

“Maraina,” I shout. That’s right.

“Efa mihininambary?” Have you already eaten rice?

“Amin’ny bazaary,” I reply. At the market.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Facebook: I Love You But You've Chosen Darkness

Oh, Facebook. I love you, but, to be honest, our relationship has begun to wear a wee bit thin.

Everybody I know tells me I should quit you: my best friend, my mom, the stock boy at the grocery store, the waiter at our favorite Thai restaurant. They say I need somebody, well, more like me. Someone willing to out the trash once in a while, who sends me flowers for my birthday. A pulse? Or a full set of teeth? This is not too much to ask, in their humble opinions.

We had our first date about two years ago, in April. It was a dark and stormy Friday night when I opened my account with you. By Saturday morning, I already had already received four friend requests; by Saturday evening, there were ten more. People started to come out of the woodwork. There was a request from my gym partner in first grade, now a Wiccan princess in Wisconsin. While we had precious little in common then (other than being physically unable to run a mile in under twelve minutes) it seems as if we may have even less in common now (maybe DNA?) But, still, a friend is still a friend and, as a stranger in a strange town, I was smitten, in no position to pass up a friend. So, I committed that most cardinal of sins--falling for the first guy who came along. You made me feel like a schoolgirl again, shiny and new.

Through you, I started to regain part of my past. My cousinʼs new girlfriend. A random woman I met on the bus last week. My old hair stylist Henry (who has now become Henrietta). The guy with the lazy eye who lived on my college dorm floor. Remember? The one who used to wander the halls at three oʼclock in the morning, wearing nothing but a knit afghan and rainbow-colored beanie? Not that I tried to look. Well, maybe. But only once or twice. He had the unfortunate habit of wearing the afghan on his head and the beanie around his waist. I used to think he had potential. He had kind eyes. Or maybe it just seemed that way. He was, after all, probably under other influences.

Facebook, in those days, I could have curled up next to you all day, perusing your Top News offerings, your friend suggestions, your horoscopes. In my oxytocin-induced state I allowed my dishes to pile up and dust bunnies of Wild Wild West proportions to fill my apartment. Facebook, in all honesty, the first few months were great. There was never a dull moment. No subject was so mundane, nothing too existentially profound that it could not be distributed, like fresh and fragrant manure, amongst my ʻfriendsʼ via your handy status-sharing device. Whatʼs for breakfast? What does the weather forecast look like tonight? Whatʼs the general consensus on libertarianism, from both economic and social standpoints? What is the meaning of life? You were like my own private oracle of Delphi.

But, Facebook, you do have a shadow side. I know youʼre seeing other people behind my back, despite the fact that you agreed not to. Couldnʼt you use some discretion, at least for my sake? I donʼt want to see pictures of your other girlfriends-- at salsa night, at the baseball game, huddled together on a towel at the beach sipping fruity drinks?
You and your philandering are plunging my poor unfortunate soul into a placeTibetan Buddhists refer to as hungry ghost hell. Here notable personages from the past and present hover unceasingly like psychic vampires. Other notable features of this realm include fiery red pokers inserted into the rectum at regular intervals. Iʼm totally serious here. Why, Facebook? Are your other girlfriends smarter than me? Nicer than me? Better-looking than me? More likable than me?

Really, Facebook! Our relationship is forcing me to enjoy searing colonoscopies at a rate more frequent than is desirable or advisable. I really think the end (no pun intended) is on the horizon.

Facebook, Youʼre so 1950ʼs! So status quo! Undo your shirtsleeves a little! Put down the dry martini! Get out of the office once in a while! This is the 2010s! Donʼt pigeonhole me with your narrow categories: Line of work. Educational accomplishments. Relationship status. Personal appearance. Size of social network. Humanity has operated for too long with the determinants of success so narrowly defined. Pshaw! Why do you make life into a checklist? Why the common conception that passage into adulthood is achieved at the point where one is able to ʻcheckʼ off each of these elements? Does life not intervene sometimes to uproot us from a job, a friendship, a relationship, despite our best efforts? You need some new categories. How about: Favorite book? Favorite vegetable? Favorite yoga pose?

Facebook, Iʼm taking a Facebreak. Just give me a second, though. Iʼve still gotta update my status...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Yoganomics 101: Save-Asana and the Law of Diminishing Returns

Yoga is a multi-million dollar business in the United States, and Pittsburgh, PA, home of steel workers and sports teams with the drive of burnished steel, has followed suit. Like star safety Troy Polamalu blazing his way down the football field, yoga has taken the city by storm.

There are currently six yoga studios within a ten-minute radius on Pittsburgh’s East End alone and many others throughout the rest of the city. This is big business--each promises something a little different to would-be clientele: increased endurance and vitality, weight loss, detoxification, a more relaxed mind--even the elusive ‘yoga butt’ guaranteed to turn heads during spring break in Cabo. (Don’t laugh. Well-sculpted derrieres are the subject of many a yogi joke during class.) Many also offer boutiques stocked with accoutrements of the well-heeled yogi: designer workout clothing, mats, props, baby clothing, and aromatherapy sprays.

Yoga purists decry the commercialization which has accompanied yoga practice in recent years. This is understandable.The ability to purchase an expensive necklace, for example, does not place one on the road to enlightenment. All one really needs for a yoga practice is a body, some clothing and a patch of floor or grass.

Recently, two studio chains in the area have adopted a pay-as-you-wish pricing scheme. On the surface, this would seem an ultimately populist stance, enabling all to enjoy affordable yoga and bringing in students who could not normally afford the $14 per class drop-in fee.

But there is a darker side.

In the long run, this arrangement will be just as damaging to the general ethos of yoga as an exorbitant per class price tag. By driving price into the ground, studios garner a lot of bad karma. First, there will be overcrowding. (I have attended classes so crowded students bump their neighbor’s behinds when coming up from Prasarita Padottanasana). Second: there is a lack of personal attention from the instructor. This is especially dangerous for beginners, who are still learning the poses and may push themselves beyond their body’s comfort level. And, third: in the case of injury, less liability insurance is required for the studio with no set pricing scheme.

This arrangement also damages yoga’s reciprocal student-teacher relationship. The practice becomes a sweat shop, literally, a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am spiritual experience, where as many people are run through as quickly as possible. Ethical questions abound. Is this a business? A public service enterprise? The teacher becomes a little like a drill sargeant wearing trendy $90 designer pants from the studio. Gone are the days of self-study and introspection which are definitely a hallmark of yoga.

In ancient India, yoga was practiced on the bare floor or a mat, by a practicioner clad in the most simple of garments, often a dhoti or cotton cloth. The student is led by a guru, or master. Money did not always change hands in this transaction; instead the exchange is rooted in the theory of ‘kundalini’, a concept which refers to an energy exchange: the teacher expends time and effort in teaching and nurturing a student’s practice. The student, if he is able (students were always male back then), reciprocates in some way--monetarily, or through a donation of time, perhaps assisting the teacher throughout the day. Teachers who freely give of their time and energy to the community are assisted by students to live a decently comfortable lifestyle.

Let’s get real here. We teachers do live in a market economy where cold hard cash, rather than smiles and good vibes, are the driving engines of commerce. We adapt a centuries-old art form (it really is an art) for a stress-ridden, harried modern lifestyle. Teaching yoga can require significant physical, mental and emotional energy on the part of the teacher. People come in all shapes, sizes, varieties and mental dispositions and teaching a class can be a delicate balancing act.

We hope students will place a monetary value on class and donate, but we cannot be certain enough to stake our livelihoods upon it. It is a cardinal rule of business to never expect that a customer (or client or student) will act as you would act. There is an assumption that yoga students will value their experience, recognize the particular brand of the studio and donate to the best of their ability. But, the fact remains: people like to get a good deal when they can--pure and simple. This is human psychology, neither good nor bad. Just how it is.

Relatively speaking, Pittsburgh’s East End is an affluent community. Classes during traditional 9-5 work hours are often packed, which indicates that many can afford not to work or have flexible schedules. Many of the students who attend yoga class here are clad in $90 yoga pants and $50 tank tops. They cover their mats with $50 super-absorbent towels and drive shiny SUVs. By changing the payment scale to donation-based yoga (in an area with a largely upscale financial demographic), studio owners place their teachers in a pickle, perhaps destroying the historical idea of give-and-take which has been part of a yogic spirituality for millennia.

In this way, a student becomes entitled to receive and reciprocity never enters into the equation. It is modernism at its finest but does not promote the idea of spiritual growth or exchange which is yoga’s bedrock. Psychologists often tell us that the most valuable things are those for which we have had to give something up.

(Again, I do not wish to impugn the idea of teaching volunteer or affordable donation-based classes in a home, place of worship or another community space-IF it is the teacher’s decision to do so ( rather than a decision made by his or her studio owner/employer.) This is a wonderful way for a teacher to share his or her practice with the community.
Most teachers are not money grubbers. In the yoga world, money is a tricky thing. Most instructors, whether full or part-time, possess a certain degree of selflessness. We love what we do, but we need to make a living just like many of our students, for whom class serves as a welcome respite from the stresses of the workday.

In America, it is fundamentally accepted that accountants, plumbers, electricians, hair stylists, et cetera, should be financially compensated for their time. It is ludicrous to suggest a simple smile and good vibes as renumeration for a job well done! (The mental picture of smiling and namaste-ing to the plumber who recently fished a shampoo bottle out of my bathroom sink! Or smiling and namaste-ing to my accountant during tax time!)

Yoga-teaching is a skill which costs time and can be expensive to acquire. Training programs run several thousand dollars and require at least 200 or 300 hours of class, study and practice teaching. To retain certification, teachers are required to enroll in workshops with master teachers. Fees for these workshops can run up to several hundred dollars for a weekend, plus travel expenses. Teachers are rarely subsidized by their employers for these expenses.

It is my belief that many a yoga instructor has been reluctant to ask for adequate compensation by an employer because he or she fears doing so will somehow make him or her seem less than ‘yogic’ by fixating on the mundane realities of this world, like rent and groceries. Unfortunately, some employers will attempt to exploit this mentality, driving teaching prices far into the ground. As a yoga teacher, it is not uncommon to encounter similar types of scenarios as one would encounter in the corporate world.

While I never expected to become rich doing this, I had expected to be able to cover a few extra bills. My own journey into the business of yoga has, most certainly, been an eye-opening experience. I have had joyful connections to many students, and the opportunity to share my love of the practice, and a chance to deepen my own practice.

In my two years of teaching, I have also experienced my own share of frustration.

I signed my first contract for a studio in my area. I would be teaching a 1.25 hour class at five dollars per student. I was assured, after an initial trial period, when I was paid $20 per class (a relative fortune), that my class sizes would increase beyond one or two students, but it never did. While class brought me a wonderful emotional pay-off, it also brought me an average of $2.50 an hour, considering I opened the studio up early and stayed late.

After four months, I still hadn’t received a paycheck or any more students.

When I just couldn’t be selfless any more, I explained to the owner the situation, via e-mail, that I would be looking for another job. She replied that I was in breach of my contract and so unreliable an employee (I had sent out a sub request once, a few days early, when I learned out-of-town family would be visiting that evening) that I should never dare to ask her for a recommendation for any future yoga jobs. Shortly after I quit, I received my check for my entire time of employment: $100.

I never expected to become rich when I became an instructor almost two years ago, and would probably vouch for many of my colleagues as well. ( And, again, I don’t wish to impugn the virtue of voluntarily teaching, when the teacher has made the decision to do so himself or herself.) But, come on, cut us a break!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Perfect Storm

According to those who keep such records, this has been deemed the wintriest winter month since 1880. It has been called "Snowpacalypse", "Snowmaggedon" and "Snowtastrophe."

The first snowstorm was fun--lines at the grocery for bread, milk and toilet paper and dire prognostications of tv weatherman pointing towards a coalescing mound of doom, a digital mound marked "potentially paralyzing" extending from Western Pennsylvania through Philly, Baltimore and the DC area.

When all was said and done that first Saturday afternoon, it was impossible to find one's automobile underneath huge snowmounds, but, damn it, was it fun. I emerged midday to find my normally busy Pittsburgh street had undertaken the quiet timbre of a zombie film, just before attack--in what once was a busy shopping street, now an eerie silence. Soon people emerged shellshocked yet smiling--the shambling masses began to saunter down the road, a crazy gleam in the eye, a heavy duty ice shovel in the hand. Somebody once described George Romero's filming of "Night of the Living Dead" in nearby Monroeville in much the same vein.

Then the sun came out, a covenant that God had not abandoned his people. Things got more lively. With stores and shops closed, my street would soon morph from Romero to Rockwell, neighbor greeting neighbor, amateur photographrs everywhere. Couples emerged in their best snowclothes, smiling and drinking hot chocolate. Parents pulled kids on sleds. Groups of South Asian students, for whom it was the first snowfall, united to build a snowman in front of an apartment complex. In a moment ripe with comic potential, an urban cross-country skiier emerged in the middle of the road, sun glinting off his glasses like this was a resort street in a chic Colorado ski town.

"Hello, hello!" Neighbor greeted neighbor. We didn't realize how long things were gonna be like this.

Now, I love snow. And I really don't mind cold, crisp weather either. Winter is a season of introspection, a time for rest and growth, for the kind of turning-inward that leads to spiritual growth and maturity. During cold weather micro-organisms gear up in the soil, and contribute to a hearty growing season in the spring and summer It also makes it that much better when the first little crocuses of spring pop their heads above ground. I think we tend to forget that sort of thing in the west; we want everything here and now.

But, let's be honest here, cabin fever can also make one absolutely f@#king crazy, especially when trying to extricate a vehicle from three feet of packed snow and ice, which should, seriously, become a sport in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The first time, I did so with a dustpan and garden rake, the second time with a bucket and dishpan, until a cute guy stopped to help me shovel out, apparently coming back from the airport after flying in from Los Angeles. Public service announcement to the men of Pittsburgh: if you find yourself single during a blizzard of Biblical proportions, this is a very, very, very good way to meet ladies! If I were a dude, I would be wondering around with a shovel and de-icer. Seriously.

The snow and ice lends a sort of ridiculousness to daily endeavors. Ultimately, we are reminded that Mother Nature ultimately trumps our desire to get everything we want in there here and now. This is especially apparent in the fine art of operating a motor car on an intersection which possesses the gradient of a Minnesotan ice-fishing lake, such as the one in front of my apartment. This should be another Olympic sport, incidentally. Every five minutes someone gets stuck. (And then they're, like, "Well, I was just going to Target, and..." WHEN THERE'S A BLIZZARD STAY THE F@#K AWAY FROM TARGET!!) When people tire of honking in vain, they push the offending car. Then the helpers slip on the ice and fly up, Three Stooges-like, into the air, landing on their backs. There is much screaming and swearing and even more honking. Then the UPS truck gets stranded on the ice. (The dead will rise and the USPS, FedEx and UPS will continue to make their deliveries.)

The snow is melting now, and things are beginning, less and less, to resemble feudal times. My mother visited after the first blizzard and was amazed to see cars plunged into snowbacks, footprints in snow as walking paths. At just the right moment, somebody actually leaned out an apartment window and poured a bucket of water onto the pavement, like a slop bucket.
Snowmen of all shapes, sizes and sartorial savvy linger over the streetscape, although they are now mellllttiingg. A tall cyclops snowman in front of a tattoo parlor, several Steelers snowmen and my favorite, a beer-swilling, coffee-drinking little guy outside of a sports bar. He wears a visor and sports Mardi Gras beads. At one point, he had been made anatomically correct through the use of a broom handle, although someone soon corrected this--it was a family neighborhood, after all.

(To be continued...)