Jai!

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It’s Saturday, and it was a hectic week. Work has been frantic, I had dinner on Wednesday with a development person from my college, and job hunting has cranked up to overdrive.

After several phone interviews over the last few weeks, on Friday I had my first on-site interview in about a year. I didn’t practice asanas on the day of the interview, but I did go through a 20 minute meditation from Elsie’s Yoga Podcast to calm my nerves.

The interview felt like it went quite well, but I had to run right to the office after it, sneaking into a McDonalds bathroom on the way to the office to change into jeans so as not to raise suspicion wearing dress pants and polished shoes to work on a Friday.

Last night I slept like a baby, and did not set the alarm. The extra sleep worked wonders.

Fortunately, I woke with enough time for a cup of coffee, a quick walk with the dog and time to make it to the 10:00 class at Dharma Yoga.

Today’s class was a great one.

The teacher was one I’ve had many times before, and a few weeks ago I was starting to feel like her classes were getting too scripted for me. But today’s class really resonated.

The sequencing was mostly familiar, but the teacher took some breaks during the class to explain some of the postures in-depth. I really enjoy studying, exploring and understanding, and this type of instruction really helps me deepen my practice.

Throughout the course of the class, I also noticed photos of Sri Dharma Mittra in the studio, staring at me with kind, gentle and encouraging eyes.

The asanas felt good. I felt strong in extended side angle and triangle, and continued to work on my shoulder stand. My balance was pretty good through most of the practice.

But the savasana and close of class felt truly inspired, under my teacher’s soulful guidance. Apparently it resonated for other students as well, based on the sniffling I heard at the end.

The whole experience helped me understand the concept of surrender. I put my best forward in the job interview, I wrote an awesome and bold thank you letter to the hiring manager, and I now will surrender to the outcome.

It also made me feel softer and more vulnerable, in a good way. Since I had no breakfast, I went looking for lunch after class. For whatever reason, I did not feel like having anything with meat. Not with the feeling of surrender to the practice that I felt today, not with the image of Sri Dharma starting at me in photos throughout class and still in my mind as I looked for lunch.

Veggie Burrito!

This time, I went for the tofu and Swiss chard burrito from Tomate. Excellent. It was better than the last one I got, because it felt less carb-loaded than the last one. It came with a deep green tomatillo hot sauce that was the perfect accompaniment to the burrito.

Jai!

My deepest thanks to my teachers who have shared their light with me.

And to the burrito cooks of Tomate.

Smoked asanas today

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Today was the perfect day to explore some of the core elements of this blog. My wife and I went out for dinner last night at Trattoria D.O.C., and had some great authentic wood fired Italian style pizza. Mine was the Pizza Rustica, topped with Mozzarella, red onion, mushroom, sun-dried tomato and olives. Vegetarian. I had a glass of Chianti with dinner, and we went home and watched the excellent documentary SOMM – a tale of a group of guys studying to take the staggeringly difficult Master Sommelier exam.

An enjoyable night out, but I ate too much and had a bourbon neat and Manhattan at home as well. I try not to beat myself up, but I should learn to stop at two drinks rather than three.

This morning I was a little slower than normal, but not too bad. The forecast called for warmer weather, but at 9:00 am it was still only 30 degrees or so.

I went to Dharma for a 10:00 class, and sweated out the toxins. We closed class with some alternate nostril pranayama practice. Hopefully it will knock out the last remnants of my sinus and chest congestion.

After today’s practice, I felt that I could learn to practice moderation and have fewer nights like the one I had last night. It wasn’t like I went all-out like I did in the old days, but it was still obviously too indulgent.

But something is changing inside me. I feel like I can and will learn moderation. I feel like it won’t be deprivation, but the new normal. It’s a gradual process, to be sure, but I feel like the awareness of when I’ve strayed from moderation is a gift in itself.

The temperature climbed to 50 today, and the sun was shining. After practicing the asanas and having lunch, I went out to hit some golf balls at the driving range. I was hitting most of my clubs pretty well, and found the practice meditative and relaxing. It reminded me that I should re-read the excellent book Buddha Plays 18, written by my Uncle Eddie. His book brings mindfulness to your golf game, and has helped me learn to enjoy the process and the journey more than the result. I should probably take another look at Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons as well.

This evening I pulled the grill out of the garage, and made some BBQ chicken breasts with spice rub and sauce from Hecky’s. Hard to call it BBQ if it was just fast grilled over gas, but whatever. I was cooking out, and I haven’t done that since the Prime Rib for Christmas Eve.

Dinner was not overindulgent, but it did bring me full circle to the contradiction in my mind and my blog. I want to continue to grow and travel down the mindful path, but I am still drawn to the primal pleasure of cooking meat over fire. I know this is in conflict with ahimsa. Perhaps the first step should be to walk away from mindless meat consumption like the Jimmy John’s subs that I tend to eat for lunch during the week.

Before I think of cutting anything out (be it meat, alcohol or leather shoes), my intention is to learn how to practice moderation more effectively.

St. Patrick’s Day Green Juice Cleanse

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St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago is an epic event. I’ve lived in the area since 2001, and I enthusiastically participated in pub crawls and Irish excess during my first few years in the city.

I met my future wife on the Saturday before St. Pat’s Day, through mutual friends, at a bar in Chicago. Ginger Man Tavern, just north of Wrigley Field. We hit it off immediately, and went on our first date the next day.

A year and a half later, we were married. Nights out gradually became more tame, and the epic St. Pat’s Day benders became a think of the past. I don’t really miss them, but I can look back on them with nostalgia and somewhat fond memories.

This year, I’ve got a different plan. My first ever juice cleanse! After finding a Groupon for a three day cleanse from Peeled Evanston, I decided to take the plunge and give it a shot. I pick up my juice order on Friday afternoon, and will start on Saturday morning.

The package includes six juices a day, including a green veg juice, a maroon beet juice, cayenne lemonade and cashew milk. I’m not sure what I will learn from it, but I think it’s a significant milestone that I am even considering doing it. It’s never even crossed my mind before. I’m a little nervous about that beet juice – yech!

I hope it helps my digestive system, I hope it helps me reset some bad eating habits, I hope it shows me that I have inner strength to do something like this.

To be honest, it’s not something I’ve studied at length, and I don’t know what to expect. But this is a time of change, and I am open to see what it reveals.

I’ve heard that the breath can help you get through the moments of hunger and difficulty.

Deep Thoughts

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Sometimes I wonder what I will do if I crave Hecky’s after a class at Dharma. What if my classmates see me walk past my car and right down to the smokehouse? Should I take a slow stroll around the block, waiting for them to drive away before I sneak in for some pulled pork? What if the instructor saw me?

Veggie Burrito!

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Another Saturday morning class, this time without the pranayama practice but good all the same. Our instructor asked us to be present throughout the class, to focus on the asanas with intention and not to be lazy or to push too hard. She asked us to dedicate the practice to someone we love, and I knew this one would be for my wife.

I realized I was becoming more a part of a community as well, and said good morning to a couple fellow classmates. This is a big deal for me, overcoming my normal introverted tendency.

When class was over, I was ready to grab some lunch. I went through a mental list of the options – Hecky’s, Buffalo Joe’s, Al’s Deli. All good local institutions with good sandwiches and stuff. My weight was down to 225 this week, and I kind of wanted a healthier option. I started to drive toward Al’s Deli for a Turkey Havarti Baguette, and then thought of Tomate Mexican next door.

Veggie Burrito!

On the one hand, this wasn’t the healthiest lunch option after my practice. On the other hand, it was vegetarian and a good throwback to things I love to see at Phish concerts. Nothing quite like seeing a Wookie in the parking lot trying to trade a veggie burrito for a $50 ticket to the show. Or better yet, a “miracle” ticket.

In any event, the burrito was delicious and probably too carb-heavy given the rice and sweet potato filling. On a deeper level, the burrito made me wonder about what would happen if I keep going down this yogic path.

It’s not lost on me that non-violence is one of the foundational teachings of the Yoga Sutras. Most would say that non-violence and eating meat are not compatible.

Now, I’m not the biggest carnivore in the world. When I hit the grocery store, I purchase just as many veggie burgers and plant based proteins as I do animal based proteins. But most days I will have a turkey sandwich or Greek salad with chicken for lunch. I think my body operates most effectively when it has some solid animal protein to digest.

From a dietary standpoint, I don’t think I would have too much of a problem shifting to more plant based proteins. But beyond the dietary and ethical questions about vegetarianism, I am also grappling with deep questions about my identity.

I have studied the art of barbecue more deeply than any other cuisine. I love a leisurely Sunday afternoon over a few beers, smokey ribs and laughs with friends. I love the search for the “100 mile” BBQ shack, like Wilbur’s in Goldsboro, NC. I love the time shared with my Dad and my Uncle worshipping over the smoldering coals. On a cultural level, I love how deeply barbecue is woven into the fabric of our nation. There is something deeply soulful and universal about barbecue that crosses lines of race and religion and income. Is it a stretch to say it’s like yoga?

If you forced me to pick my last meal, it’s not going to be the veggie burrito. More likely it will be smoked Memphis-style ribs. I think a nice California Zinfandel would pair well with the ribs, or a Two-Hearted IPA.

What does it mean if I practice the asanas on Saturday, and smoke the ribs on Sunday?

The Divided Sky

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After we arrived back home, I was quickly able to settle back into my routine of classes at the gym. This wasn’t the case after trips in the past, where I often was out of equilibrium for a week or more after arriving home. Things were feeling different now.

I was reading more too, working through the books and discovering Elephant Journal online. Reading what others experienced help me understand and articulate what I was feeling.

Before long, I decided I should look at studying at a studio. It certainly wasn’t for lack of options or good instruction at my gym – there was more than enough classes on the schedule and I really liked my teachers. But I guess I was curious about the studio experience, and I started to look at options around town.

The studio closest to home was Dharma Yoga, just a block away from Hecky’s Barbecue. Needless to say, I was already plenty familiar with Hecky’s. There were other studios, but Dharma was the frontrunner due to location – easy walking distance.

Hecky's

In any event, I studied the Dharma site, reading about the philosophy, instructors and class schedule. Pricing looked kind of steep, at $17 for a drop-in class and working down to $13 or so for a package of 10. I wasn’t convinced, and if I liked it, would I then get rid of the gym membership?

Thank goodness for the Groupon. I’ve never used one before, but I found Dharma had a group of 30 classes for $89. I’ve always shied away from Groupons because I thought they would result in crappy service, especially at a restaurant. I did the math, and found this to be a screaming value. And if I went to one class and hated it, I could be out the cost of a dinner out in the city and never go back for another class. Seemed an acceptable risk, so I took it.

I went to my first Hatha Yoga class at Dharma on Wednesday, Feb 12.

I found the warmth and personal touch to be a huge contrast from the classes at the gym. The instructor led some “om” chanting and had some more esoteric references, but I was hooked. And I sensed no difference in service due to the Groupon.

I went to my next class in the style of Dharma Yoga with a different instructor on Saturday, and got pulled in deeper. The asanas were well-explained and most were within my reach. Headstand, not so much. But this class went deeper with the chanting, and incorporated some mudras and pranayama practice at the end.

The pranayama practice involved an elaborate sequence of breathing exercises that involved closing one nostril at a time, inhaling, holding, exhaling through the other nostril and so on. When class concluded, the sun was out and teacher played some really uplifting tribal music. I’ve never felt so energized after a class, and felt a lasting peaceful feeling throughout the day.

The next day, I went to the gym and hopped on the cycle for a while. I put on the headphones, closed my eyes and listened deeply to Divided Sky by Phish (8/13/96 – Deer Creek, IN for those heads in the audience). Over the course of the song, I felt a rush of energy radiating up my spine from my tailbone to the top of my head. This was deeper than the goosebumps I sometimes found in the past during a great Phish jam. Strange things indeed were happening to my body. Oh, and I was sober too.

Trey-Anastasio_2009

Not only had yoga lifted a block to reading, it had also helped me listen to – and really hear – the music again. Even better, I could pick up a half rack of ribs after practice every week.

Connecting with my Uncle

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I flew down to Raleigh for the next round. Family, food and fun was in the air.

Our first dinner was at an excellent tapas place called Mateo in Durham. It was recommended by my sister, a Durham resident and local food writer. We ordered round one, and Dad ordered round two and three along with another glass of wine or two to go with it. The jamon sampler was amazing. When I see family, most of the talk centers around where we ate or what we cooked. We are a family of foodies, none more than Dad.

The next day I hit the road to New Bern. The visit with my Uncle was a long time coming. He’s everyone’s eccentric uncle, but to an even more extreme level. Brilliant. Funny. Caring. Genuine. A renowned civil rights lawyer who grew up in the St. Louis area, and marched to his own beat. A riveting story teller with a gift for knowing how to spin a tale and string you along for miles and miles. Well-traveled and worldly, with the ability to hold a conversation with the Queen of England or the auto worker at the UAW hall. An animal lover and amateur historian. And our family historian. He dove into genealogy before it was fashionable, and spent countless hours poring through library and court records in St. Louis to piece together our family’s story. Before ancestry.com existed. We are a people of Alsace, if you must know, which is more of a German culture than a French one. More of a sausages and beer kind of place than a wine and cheese kind of place.

He deeply valued education, and it was important for him to pass this along as a core family value. He went out of his way to attend every graduation, from my high school walk in Michigan to college in Colorado, to my sister’s in Michigan to my grad school finale in Evanston.

Growing up in Michigan, our family visited him every year or two, and I spent some special time with him in my early 20s. When I was completing some job training for our family business, I had the good fortune to stay with UP, P and the dog Otter for a couple months. We spent countless hours shooting the shit over BBQ chicken and pork steaks smoking in the Weber kettle grill at the edge of his garage. Drinking beers, listening to the birds and petting the dog. He took me to my first bar in St. Louis when I was 19 or so. He and my Aunt were bad influences like that in a good way.

Sometime in the mid-2000s, he and P relocated from St. Louis to New Bern to make the way for sailing and retirement. I saw him less and less over the years, more due to life getting busy than anything else. L and I got married in 2007, and he did not make it to the wedding. His dog Otter was dying, and was too big and too old to be taken to the kennel. I was disappointed he could not be there, but I understood with time. I think his siblings were less understanding, and held on to it.

L met him for the first time at my Aunt’s house in Chapel Hill the year after we got married. Christmas Day dinner, I think, and he was drunk. I think he had words with my Aunt that weekend about her values and choice of business, and caused a freeze in the family.

A couple years later, he reached out to everyone after converting the Family History from hard copy to digital. He specifically reached out to me to share some family heirlooms, and asked me to take the torch and become the next family archivist. He and I corresponded now and then, and he shared some great family stories. But sometimes when he would email late at night, I could see sarcastic tones and intoxication in his writing.

Around 2010, L and I committed to making a whirlwind trip from Chapel Hill to New Bern during our post-Christmas visit. I was excited and stressed at the same time, mostly because I was concerned about the experience L would encounter. As it turns out, North Carolina was hit with a big snow storm, dropping five inches the day after we arrived in Chapel Hill. While that’s not a big deal in Chicago with all of its snow plows, it’s enough to paralyze North Carolina. He sent a note, and told us we were off the hook for the visit. I was secretly relieved.

Three years later, the holidays were approaching again, and I was planning a trip to NC. I decided to give it another shot, and this time L was not with me. Over these years, his contact with his siblings was limited.

Real or imagined, I carried a lot of weight on my shoulders with my planned visit.

When I arrived in New Bern, I called my Uncle and he rode a bike down the dock to greet me in the parking lot. He and P live on a boat with their cat, and he showed me around the ’57 Carver cabin cruiser. Much like him, this boat had a lot of stories behind it. It was originally wood, and then refinished in fiberglas after sinking. Nice woodwork throughout, and plenty of character.

Soon after, we cruised around town, did some sightseeing and hit the Piggly Wiggly on the way back to the boat.

That evening, we hung out on the dock, barbecuing pork steaks and shooting the shit. Dinner was fresh, soulful and fulfilling. I slept on a cot in the living room, and then next morning I hit the road back to Chapel Hill. Of course, I needed to stop at Wilber’s BBQ in Goldsboro for some of the world’s finest pulled pork. In the true Eastern Carolina tradition, they serve hush puppies as a side, and they use a vinegar-based sauce nothing like the stuff you find in your local grocery store.

Wilbers

I arrived back in Chapel Hill, but the feast wasn’t over. The next day, Dad got ambitious and used the injector I got him for Christmas to marinate the brisket. He seasoned it with the Brisket of Love rub from Spice House in Evanston. And he smoked it on his Big Green Egg. Do I need to tell you it was amazing?

By the end of the trip, I had certainly eaten enough.

But I also had a warm feeling, a kind of glow I hadn’t felt during the holidays in a long time.

Spit-Roasted Prime Rib

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L and I decided to host Christmas Eve dinner in the new house, and Mom came to town for a few days. I was feeling ambitious, and decided to attempt my first standing rib roast. The roast was more than a delicious piece of prime rib. It is my Dad’s Christmas Eve signature dish, and I wanted to build on the family tradition. After exhaustive research on preparation, I decided to take the manly approach and cook the roast on the rotisserie out on the gas grill. Recipe credit goes to Steven Raichlen. To round out the menu, we decided to make a potato gratin and brussels sprouts tossed in caraway mustard butter. Recipe credit for both dishes goes to Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

It was no warmer than 15 degrees outside, but the rotisserie handled the task well. The roast was tender, nicely crusted on the top and ends thanks to the rosemary-garlic rub, and nicely pink on the inside. More importantly, my wife, mother and in-laws loved it. Turned out to be one of the top five meals I’ve ever cooked.

But my holidays were just beginning. I still needed to take a post-Christmas trip to NC for family business with D & D and sis. Then I need to make a trip to the coast to visit my Uncle.

Overscheduled again. Holiday stress can eat me alive, I think due to being a child of divorce. Pressure to see two families, and in two different locations as well. Then add the in-laws to the mix.

How would I survive?