Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Theosophical Society

Pictures of the Theosophical Society in Chennai. It is an oasis in the city, where one can find some quiet, the sounds of parrots and caw-caws and owls in the trees, greenness, a path to walk that isn't a battle between human versus driving vehicle. It does have its own conflicted history, which I know little of except that there was the drive to create an encompassing, non-denominational, spiritual organization. Also, there was the anointment of a guru, Krishnamurti, and the eventual frictions and loss of belief that almost always accompanies the naming of a special leader. This all happened many years ago and you can find the history elsewhere. Now, the place feels more like a village held in time, somewhere about 1940 or so. The architecture is colonial/Key West-like. The grounds are maintained, but more in a Southern plantation way than in a Disneyland way, meaning that there are weeds, bushes need to be trimmed, and you hardly see anyone in the whole place, despite the fact that the Theosophical Society has a large chunk of land right in the middle of Chennai.
As you walk the path through the land, you come across different micro gardens. Above, part of the cactus-desert area, which is more a collection of different succulent and cacti, small and large, in a plot of land along the main road. This is Tamil script. It may be someones name or a message; it reminded me of the graffiti that you find on old picnic tables and park benches.
And the piece de resistance of the place: the banyan tree.
This is actually the smaller of the banyan trees. The larger one takes up an area about one-quarter of a mile wide, yet is all one tree, with roots growing down into the soil and then creating a new trunk. But like our redwoods, all of these sub-trees are interrelated through their root structures and depend upon one another for sustenance. Pretty good metaphor, right? (I don't have a picture of the main tree, which has its own keeper who stands in the area to explain the tree and perhaps protect it. I was somewhat intimidated and unsure whether you tip the keeper to photograph the tree, so I just gazed, marveled, and went on.)
Trees are a big, symbolic deal at the Theosophical Society. Along part of the path to the banyan tree, you find small stone or concrete labels with the names of the countries of the world, and each one stands either before a tree, or before a hole waiting for its sapling. Here, especially, the place felt deserted and somehow pulled from a child's story book or something by Hemingway: all world weariness and desire to fight the decay of time.
And a wall around a small temple dedicated to several gods. (The facade of the temple is the first picture in this post.) I love the moss and fatigue of this wall.
So, a little bit more of Chennai. It's good to see some warmth and grass.
Around here, I am measuring sweaters (Juliet, too small this time, but a good learning experience because I actually stopped to try it on about 1/3 of the way in and measure and compare it to the specs in the pattern, and discovered that I'm almost dead-on to the specs and need to start over and go up a size); also, measured my favorite hooded sweater and compared that to the specs for Vivian (I might want to widen the waistline, make the sleeves and hem a little fuller, and the hood longer, but this is why I bought my yarn at my LYS - this sweater looks tough and I will need assistance and support); and my latest Foliage (final answer: for me, a woman's small takes 80 stitches, not 96, even when I have gone down to a size 6 needle instead of the 7's called for in the pattern.) And noodling away at starting a venture into yoga therapy. I'm working on putting together a brochure, figuring out the logistics of a (very bare bones) Web presence, meeting here and there to talk about yoga therapy, and trying to remember to keep some business cards on hand to give out when I do find someone who is interested.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sanga Hats, Batch One

Pattern: Foliage
Yarn: Malabrigo, about 3/4 skein
Needles: size 7 16" circ, size 5 16" circ, size 7 DPNs
Gauge: about 14 st/4 in in st st
Notes: my first attempt at this pattern, no gauge swatching was done before tackling the hat; I am a loose knitter and this first version is very large, almost too big even to suit an adult who wears a Large-size hat

A sanga (as I may have mentioned before) is a group of like-minded individuals. Not clones or a cult. (I'm distracted, for a moment, by the idea that you could bring a large group of people together and have everyone agree.) A sanga, pronounced sahn-gah, is a community of people who have a common interest, a shared outlook on life, a philosophical or spiritual or materialistic or intellectual foundation that ties the disparate crowd together in some way.

My yoga therapy classmates have been together for about two years. But it was only this fall, when we spent two weeks together in a beautiful retreat center in Tennessee, that we began to become a sanga. Eating meals together, walking through the woods to class and back, studying at separate tables but in the same commons room, waiting in line to fill our plates at dinner, having a chat with someone that you'd never - for various reasons - found yourself sitting next to: all of these little elements contributed to our feeling more of a group by the time that we headed home.
Pattern: Foliage
Yarn: Malabrigo
Needles: size 6 DPNs, size 6 16" circ, size 5 16" circ
Gauge: about 16 st/4 inches in st st
Modifications: in addition to dropping down a needle size, I worked only to Row 15 of the Crown chart, then decreased four stitches to work the main body of the hat in Leaf Lace on 80, instead of 96, stitches; much better fit - tight enough to feel snug but stretchy enough to fit someone who wears a size Medium, maybe even Large, hat; the crown is still very deep from top to ribbing, so someone (like me) with a smaller head might want to work only 2 1/2 repeats of Leaf lace chart instead of 3 repeats before working ribbed edging; and by the way, I love K1P1 ribbing - it is a pain in the neck to execute but looks very professional when done - that sort of last fillip that makes a handknit hat something special
As usual, I was knitting during the breaks and in the evenings. This time, I was working on a set of winter-hat-and-emergency-backup-winter-hat for my older daughter. And as usual, people expressed interest, marveled, ruminated about how they had knit or would never knit or didn't have the patience to knit. I kept telling them: it's just like yoga. Knitting brings to the surface the most telltale aspects of your personality. Are you a perfectionist, disorganized, spendthrift, economical, precise, lazy? Knitting will illuminate your patterns, just as yoga does, and then you're in a better place to choose whether or not you want to support that habit or try to slowly edge away from it. Still couldn't get any takers to learn to knit, but had many sightseers to inspect the hats or yarn.
On the last day, I put out a sign-up sheet for sanga hats. Each one will be different, because part of our training is to emphasize that yoga is an individualized process, in its best application. Because we are all so different, our yoga practices should address and reflect those differences. For you, it may be a bad back. For someone else, anxiety. For another, the wish to do a headstand. Instead of putting everyone through the same paces, we look to personalize the practice to the student's needs. I have people's color preferences and measurements, and hope to occasionally strike a win.
Pattern: Turn a Square by Jared Flood
Yarn: Cascade 220 leftovers, Noro Silk Garden
Needles: size 5 16" circ, size 7 16" circ
Gauge: 20 st and 24 rows to 4 in. in st st
Notes: still the king of all hat patterns - you cannot make a bad hat from this pattern; this one is my first for a male adult, so I followed the pattern as written; could be a bit smaller to stay on and keep the head cozy, but it will work.
Next up, Habitat. Or maybe finishing Juliet. Or maybe napping. After playing my turn at Scrabble. Now up to 2 games in process.

Saturday, December 27, 2008


Seven, new, fuzzy, glow-in-the-dark tennis balls emerged from the snow in the backyard, thanks to the overnight rain and temperatures in the 60s.

And we had lunch at a deli on the North Shore with my brother-in-law. Yum, cheese blintzes. Barley soup. And when is the last time that I saw a dill pickle as a side to a sandwich? It does not happen in the western suburbs.

And, after seeing an article on Chinese restaurants of different regional styles in Chicago by Monica Eng (she of the fame of trying to taste everything at the Taste of Chicago), I discovered that there is an amazing food court next to the Asian supermarket about a mile from my house. I dashed in to pick up a takeout menu and saw lots of interesting-looking meals going on, involving large bowls of soup with noodles and dumplings and other tasty things. Everyone eating and working was Asian, which makes me think that the food will be authentic and good. Lunch or dinner, tomorrow, is the plan.

Friday, December 26, 2008


There's Scrabble on Facebook. It is my new, favorite, unneccessary Internet attraction. (Ah hem, your turn!)

And this: An actual site for organized cheating at Scrabble. I can't believe it. (And I've even been known to purposefully cheat at Monopoly and cards, just to see if anyone would notice, but never maliciously or so that I would win. And not in a long time.)

The world as we know it is ending, I fear.

Random Musing

Today's Talk of the Nation was a scientific look at making New Year's resolutions. My favorite was the woman who called, asking about the logistics and requirements for making a Whole-Family-Resolution.

That encapsulates the reason that I never listen to talk radio. (Except when I'm in the kitchen cooking, which requires some sort of radio plus one glass of wine or beer.) (And all right, my daughters: that time I first gave everyone a chance to choose her own resolution before I started assigning, I mean, suggesting one for each of you. And I didn't repeat the effort, so one can learn new tricks, right?)

In other news, I'm on Attempt Number Three of the Foliage hat, a Leaf Lace patterned hat out of Malabrigo. Am I the loosest knitter in the world? Of the several pages that I scanned on Ravelry (over 2,000 Foliage made so far, so my thought that maybe it was the pattern and not me seems questionable), everyone else who's made this pattern from Knitty has stuck with the called-for size 5 and size 7 needles. Why, when I dropped down to size 6 needles, is it still coming out like a large knit bucket? I started over again last night, this time using size 6 needles and decreasing the total number of stitches from 96 to 80. (And yes, I am anticipating that I will be kicked in the behind again when this version comes out too small. )

The magic number of stitches for a hat seems to be 72-80 for me. Turn a Square, Kim's Hat from Last-Minute Knitted Gifts, and hopefully, Foliage, seem to fit best at that size - some 20 stitches less than most of these patterns call for. And, in sock knitting, the magic number is 48 stitches on a size 1 or size 2 40" circular needle used Magic Loop method. (This holds true whether I'm making socks for a man or a woman, so please explain that. Maybe the women have large ankles and the men slimmer ones? Maybe I shouldn't consider this further.) Many of the truly popular patterns, like Monkey socks, call for many more stitches, but since I'm already on the smallest sized needle that I ever thought that I would use, there's no chance of going into a negative-sized needle. And I could shave the pattern down, but then, isn't the point of sock knitting that it be Easy?

I have decided that I will become a Brooklyn Tweed groupie, because the projects and patterns found there are the most reliable, the most gorgeous, and the most visually appealing of just about anything on the Internet. I've made the Hemlock Ring Blanket, Turn a Square, started the Noro Stripe Scarf - and each piece is, in a Shaker-sort of way, authentic and dependable and beautiful. (Who thinks that Jared Flood is in line to inherit Elizabeth Zimmermann's mantle?)

In other, unrelated news, I've baked and given away two pans of the best brownies in the world, a pan of shortbread (how can butter and lots of cornstarch and some sugar turn into something so good), and two batches of biscotti from Chez Panisse Deserts. Time now to boil the potatoes for mashed potatoes to go with the left-over gravy, stuffing and turkey from yesterday's dinner. We had Thanksgiving late this year, because of India.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

New Game

The first sweater that I successfully knit, a few years ago, from start to finish: Bubbles.

No, really, that is the name of the sweater. It's a Rowan pattern from The Next Big Thing, one of their first books on Big Wool. Big Wool is a wonder: soft, smooshy, feels wonderful as you work it, and if you want a sweater to keep you warmer than the inside of the oven on Thanksgiving, this is the ticket. Today, maybe four years after the knitting, I finished the I-cord tie that goes through the eyelets at the waistline. I'm so not a process knitter.

And because what would a blog be, this season, if not for a dissertation on snow: the backyard.
Did you watch the Bears' game last night against the Green Bay Packers? Was it 5 below zero, or 20 below zero with wind chill? They gave the players these cunning little muffs to keep their hands warm between plays, and some of the players were wearing balaclavas or knit caps under their helmets and tights (I imagine that they had a more manly name for them) under their breeches. Like that was going to keep them warm. My question was why football players don't wear down jackets for a winter game? It's not as though they are pole vaulting or ice dancing or doing some sport that requires a high degree of flexibility in the upper body (except for the quarterback and receiver, and they can glory in their mission and ignore the cold). But the rest of these guys, whose main job it is to run and tackle and block? Why not a warm jacket, which could also serve as body armor? (But yeah, the Bears did win the game and thus secured a berth in the playoffs. It couldn't have been a more Charlie Brown moment: they only had the chance because several other teams all conspired to lose this weekend AND somehow they beat the Packers, who were playing much better because they are used to the cold in Wisconsin.)

Here's the dog's new game:
  1. Leave one tennis ball outside until frozen solid.
  2. Drop said tennis ball into deep snow, then paw at it as though one doesn't know that it is there, until it is rediscovered.3. Refuse to yield frozen tennis ball to friendly human who would be happy to throw it, if only said dog would release it from his jaws.

4. Repeat as possible.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


We went to see Slumdog Millionaire yesterday afternoon and then cooked Indian food for dinner.

The movie: very good. Funny, insightful, great editing, good acting of the main characters from childhood through teenager into young adulthood, and an ending with a Bollywood dance number on a train platform. Lots of views of slums in India, where the main character grows up and fights his way to adulthood and wins the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (There are several great scenes of the children running, running through twisting streets as they are chased by another angry adult who wants to catch them after they've played a prank.) One of the more striking visuals were the large heaps of garbage in several scenes (I'd seen something similar on a much smaller scale - all of a sudden, on the side of the road, would be a big heap of paper and trash and garbage, and if there's a trash container, it's going to be lying on its side with half the contents spilling out, thanks to a helpful scavenger or maybe a large dog). In the movie, these mountains of garbage are often being picked over by beggars and children, who were carrying oversized bags made of a reinforced plasticized fabric. I saw some young girls walking along one of the more rundown streets that I went by on my way to work in Chennai; now I'm wondering if they had the job of garbage picker.

At the same time, the movie is vibrant and silly and smart. And again, that Bollywood ending: I love musicals, and the sight of several hundred people standing on a train platform doing a synchronized dance is good medicine when the weather is freezing cold and we're in the depths of a Midwestern winter. (Five below zero today. My husband touched the cold screen door with damp hands and stuck.)

Dinner yesterday was a dal of yellow split peas, or moong dal; lemon rice with cashews; and green beans with coconut. My taste buds seem to be very dull since I've come home (today I tried a banana, then a pear, and neither had much taste). My goal was to try to make the food somewhat spicy. I looked at several Indian cookbooks at the library and came home with Indian Home Cooking by Suvir Saran. It's a beautiful book and the recipes sounded more authentic than the Indian cookbook I've owned for several years and found to be fairly bland (my theory is that the author is downplaying spices and heat for an American audience).

But despite adding heaps of cumin seed, curry leaves, cardamon, and mustard seed, everything came out way too, well, blah. I will admit to a fear of green chilies. I have no cooking history with chilies: neither Jewish food nor basic American cooking nor Italian food nor even many Thai dishes - which are my mainstays - do much with chili peppers, and when I see the variety at the store - Serrano, and Jalpeno, and those skinny Thai chilies - I have no life experience to tell me which one is hottest, or how many I should add to a dish to get a little heat but not a mouth burning result. I did add a dried red pepper, sort of a little hat-shaped pepper which the cook in India used and I found in the Indian section of my green grocer, to the lemon rice. But I wimped out on the call for fresh green chili in the dal. Oddly, all three dishes called for a similar list of spices: mustard seed, yellow split peas, cumin, cardamon, and turmeric in all three. And wanting to have some variety in the end result, I decided to test spicing up the rice and leaving the other two dishes less hot.

Next time, I'll try jumping into the deep end and add the chilies. And for the dal, I'm going to saute the onion, garlic and ginger before adding the spices, instead of waiting until the end and introducing what I think of as the foundations of a dish at the very last moment as a flavoring oil. And instead of water with the dal, maybe stock. And more spices, and maybe fresher ones, too, if I take a ride to Evanston and the spice store. And I'm still looking for an Indian cookbook.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


I'm reading Outlander. I may be the last person in America to read this, and it feels like a guilty pleasure because it is long and sweeping and reminds me very much of The Time-Traveler's Wife.

I saw the series mentioned yesterday while reading Mason-Dixon Knitting Outside the Lines. Then, my hairdresser, who is on a veritable reading rampage - housework is not getting done and she rejoiced when her daughter took a 4-hour nap one afternoon because it gave her more time to read - mentioned the series today.

I stoppped at the library on the way home and huzzah, the book was there. Now I just need to figure out how to read and knit at the same time, and I'll be able to get through the winter.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Not Going Out Till Spring

I was just looking at some pictures of crocodiles and elephants and giraffes and monkeys from the Chennai zoo and thinking, how can pictures of knitting compare? As a result, I have decided that I will not be leaving the house, except for necessary trips to replenish food, knitting, and books as well as occasional forays out to teach, until the weather gets warm and the sky turns blue once more. Even if we won't have crocs and elephants to visit, I am taking a stand against Midwestern winters.
In the meantime, all that I have today - until we place captions on the 466 photos still in the camera (and if you're lucky, I'll be able to dole out a few a day to keep us going until spring) - are pictures of wooly knitting. Above, the beginning of a Turn a Square hat out of Cascade 220 and Noro Silk Garden. This is a great pattern and there are a gazillion examples to inspect on Ravelry, if you have a log in or a buddy who can sneak you in (not that I would ever consider breaking a rule, and the flight attendants on British Airways did look the other way when I was knitting a sock for the hours it took to reject our plane for safety reasons and transfer us to the new one and then wait until we were refueled and cleared for take-off, but wasn't that better than full-scale rioting? and in recompense, I did remove my Bose headphones on takeoff and landing without even being asked, and if I'd known my comfy seat was not fully upright, I would have corrected it on my own, but I still think that they could have taken a lottery and picked a few of us to feel the ultra-comfy, pod-like seating in First Class, where they get better headsets, blankets, unlimited tiny bottles of water, and who knows what else).
This is the first of the several winter hats that I'll be knitting for my sanga, or group, from my yoga therapy program. I offered, at the end of the last session, to knit a hat for anyone who wanted one. I realized, upon arriving home to Antarctica, that maybe Now is the appropriate time to be sending winter hats off to New Mexico and Canada and other North American cold climes. (Those two in New Orleans? I'll pretend that they're cold, too. It must cool off in the evenings, right?) Actually, this is the second hat. Right before leaving for India, I cranked out a Foliage from Knitty in Malabrigo. I love the yarn, love the pattern, but think that the hat came out too big. (Yes, I did not swatch. Again.) I'm wondering if it may fit a more typical sized head (mine is on the smaller size) or if I should felt it, this time keeping a very close watch on the process and not going upstairs to noodle around and then discover a very tiny felted garment in the washing machine.
And finished knitting from India: a Shetland Triangle Shawl out of Misti Alpaca Sock Yarn Fingering weight.
Pattern: Shetland Triangle
Designer: Evelyn A. Clark
Source: WrapStyle, Interweave Press
Yarn: Misti Alpaca Handpaint Sock Yarn Fingering, 1 skein/437 yds/color 03
Needle: size 7 Bryspun 32" circular
Size after blocking: 26" x 53"
A light-weight shawl, more for decoration than for warmth, and usable as a scarf as well as a shawl. One skein makes a small shawl; if you wanted more length and width, you should go with 2 skeins. A lovely pattern, easy to work and to memorize - a shawl that can be knit in busy places and stopped and started with a minimum of fussing. Using this yarn was a joy in India because of all the vibrant colors and rapid changes from one shade to another; on the other hand, it does not show off the lace as well as a solid-colored yarn would.
And the view from the front porch. Please send suggestions for happy, reassuring, cozy books to read - some angst is acceptable as are travails and challenges - but I'm looking for something not too dark and hopeless.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Home. And it's cold. Can I say a giant BOOO, cold weather and rain and ice. In just one short month in India, I'd forgotten about dampness. Like when you go outside to look for the Sunday paper, which is not there, and it's slippery and chilly and grey. Thick sheets of packed-down dirty ice on the steps and walk. Hard to believe that two days ago, I was experiencing winter in Chennai, which means 8o-degree-weather and a sweater, lightweight and cotton, only twice in 30 days.

The trip home was long but fine. We did spend more time in London than expected. Someone had a ladder up beside the plane, which was fine until refueling started, the plane got heavier, and dipped down onto the ladder, which created a small hole in the wing area. (I didn't learn this until waiting in the Immigration line at O'Hare after landing.) They photographed the hole, sent the picture through email to the engineers, and eventually determined that it was not a good idea to fly over ten hours with a little hole in the plane. Thus, we sat for about three hours in the old plane until they found the new plane, transferred crew and passengers by bus (for some reason, everything international at Heathrow involves taking buses back and forth from plane to terminal to new plane), and then waited some more.

The good news? On the flight from Chennai to London, we were upgraded from coach to something called World Traveler Plus. From now on, I ALWAYS want to be World Traveler Plus. Only two seats instead of three, so no pesky climbing over people you don't know to use the bathroom. Bigger, more comfy seats, which lean back nicely and have a footrest for propping your stocking-feet upon. A decent tray for the always terrible airplane food. (Why do they put red onion on the cheese sandwich? And something even my husband, much less fussy than me about food, in the salad that could not be identified as any known food item. Vegetable pate in the box breakfast?) And movies on demand, so that you don't tune in halfway through a second-run movie or Arrested Development, as we did for hours on the London-Chicago run. (Though Hellboy II? Genius! Who knew it would be that funny? And the special effects/superhero/monsters by Guillamo de Toro - fantastic.)

When we finally arrived home, I greeted the dog (I do think that he remembered me, and my housesitter deserves an award for the month that she spent with him), walked over to the convenience store to get milk (ah milk, that won't turn sour within one day of purchase because the elecrticity keeps going on and off), took a shower, read a magazine, and went to sleep. Today I feel tired and headachy and wierded out by the weather. I'm going to unpack, try to finish the sock that I knit 3/4 of on the plane, go to the supermarket (vegetables whose peel I can eat, things that go into an oven, but no more cookies, because I've already eaten about a half-dozen that the wonderful housesitter baked for us), perhaps buy some wood to make a fire, and try to readjust to life at home. I miss India already. I had a moment on the plane when I thought, what is wrong with everyone? So much pushing and rushing to get to the front of lines that are not going anywhere, so little beauty in the way people are dressed, so much need for jackets and boots and hats, no constant honking and zig-zagging about lanes of traffic to avoid bicycles and cows and motorbikes and buses and rickshaws. It all seems very flat and grey in Illinois. It will take some time to readjust to being back, which is not what I would have expected when I left for Chennai a very short month ago. My goal today: stay busy and try not to think of all the ways that things are different. If nothing else, maybe I will someday learn: it's all about change. And attitude.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Our last day in Chennai. We fly out this morning at 4 am. I'm packed, done at work, and wondering what to do with the rest of the afternoon and evening. We may go down to the beach, where no one goes into the water, and enjoy sitting, reading, and relaxing. Here are some more random pictures from the road trip. Above, the facade of a temple.

Below, one of my favorite pictures. My husband saw two men weaving rope. One was standing at one end of the street, the other way at the other end. Then, having seen me warp my loom, he realized that they were making a warp and that they'd spread way out to accommodate the length of the warp. In one of those moments that make a trip special, they invited him back to the workshop to see saris being woven. The weaver is working with gold thread on a large, Jacquard-style loom. I wish that I could have seen this:
A statue of a god, dressed up. Quite often, the images in temples will be draped or dressed in finery. On the way to work, we pass a house that has six brick-looking things lined up in a row and each is wearing a little apron. After the rains, they redressed them in new, clean duds. It's very sweet, though I'm not sure what it signifies.
Ancient Tamil writing. Tamil is the language of South India. It is beautiful to hear - very melodious, lilting, flowy. I tried to learn a few words, but the pronunciation is very precise and there's much more use of the tongue and mouth to make sounds than in American English, and I didn't want to mispeak. I'm hoping to learn a bit before my next trip. Any native Tamil speakers in the Chicago area who are available to tutor?
Statue of an elephant in a clearing.
So, a good trip. I'd highly recommend India to anyone wanting to see a new culture that is rooted in an ancient heritage. In comparison, our country is just at toddler stage, or not even there: our 300 or 400 years is a blink of an eye compared to the history of India. The people are welcoming, the food is fascinating and challenging and tasty (as long as you're not getting over the flu), the energy is vibrant, and everywhere you look there is something interesting to see. The next time, I'll pack a little more in the way of staples that I like to eat: good olive oil, a chunk of Parmesean cheese, some yeast for making pizza, a bigger jar of peanut butter and maybe one of almond butter for variety, crackers. And I'll be experimenting with the Indian food at my neighborhood grocery store so that I know the vegetables and fruits better and know what I can do to cook them to my taste. I'll also play with the dal and the different things to do with rice, so that, given a two-burner stove, I can build some variety into the dinners and lunches.
I'll do a longer post once I get home, but for now, I'll probably not be writing much over the next two days of travel. I'm looking forward to seeing the dog - I hope he hasn't eaten the sofa or the babysitter - and getting used to the cold weather. That, I can't even imagine right now!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Chennai Day Twenty-Six, I think

I had ice cream from Arun's for desert and it has restored my faith in India. Cashew and Almond, 100 g size, with a sprinkling of tiny chocolate chips on top. My husband had boysenberry with fried cashews. Take-away, as in our take-out. We walked the neighborhood, which was blissfully quiet and free of honking cars and whizzing motorbikes and careening auto-rickshaws. You could see the light on the leaves in the coconut and banana trees, and the road was dark enough as to seem clear of debris and easily walkable. We walked about three or four blocks in the silence, eating our ice cream and enjoying the evening.

A good ending to a day that felt like my most difficult. Each day, I've been increasingly hungry for a Western meal and less interested in the Indian lunch that is cooked for us. I come home about 1 pm for my meal break. Every day, I peer into the many little tins that the cook has brought by, and each day, I'm more morose. Green beans, again. Cabbage mixed with coconut, again. A kind of rice mush, again. Given the fact that I am a fussy eater in the best of circumstances (as a child, I would quiz waitresses at lunch counters about whether the tuna fish was light or dark, and PB and J sandwiches at camp had to have the crusts cut off), and the fact that I've been getting over a flu, the meal became less and less desirous with each day. I've been having toast for breakfast, some chicken noodle soup and peanut butter from home and some nice, plain butter cookies for lunch, and then fruit and more toast for dinner, or the last two nights, we've eaten out. Today was the last packet of soup and the bottom of the peanut butter jar. Then I ate an apple. Then I ate an oatmeal Cliff bar. Then I ate a tangerine.

This is how hungry I was: what I wanted for dinner was a nice, juicy, grilled steak (I haven't had steak in at least three years) and a glass of wine. And Chennai is dry, for the most part, meaning liquor isn't sold in most eating places. But we tried the Park Sheraton, a fancy hotel in the city. I was imagining a Westernized restaurant where I could order that steak and glass of wine. Turns out that was only in my imagination. But after some fussing, several trips between the cushy sofas in the lobby and the one restaurant that was open - where the menu posted outside looked like lots of South Indian food and no steak, and my first real doubt about whether I could spend longterm time in India (eating only soup and crackers for a week undermines your optimism), we took the plunge and walked in for dinner.

And it was very fine. Had the glass of wine. Had a grilled lamb burger with a slice of grilled pineapple, french fries, some funny little pickled vegetables including tiny ears of corn. And the hot tea here is wonderful: served hot (not lukewarm), with milk and sugar. I wish that I knew what kind of tea it is so that I coud buy some to take home: it is soothing and reassuring and tastes like something out of an English child's nursery story.

After dinner, we went out to the guy in charge of calling your car and gave him our driver's number. At home, they'll go dashing off across the lot to get your car. Here, the man picked up a Mr. Microphone beside the podium he was working at and announced "4-5-9-1!!" at top volume. Again and again. No D. "4-5-9-1!!! 4-5-9-1!!!" No D. I surreptitiously took my cell phone out to call him and was somehow spotted. The announcer came over and asked me for the driver's cell number. I said, it's okay, I'll just give him a call. "Madam, I will call him. His number please?" Then "4-5-9-1" booming across the parking lot. Just then, my husband spotted the car. D. drove up, we sheepishly got in, and off we went. Apparently, with a big India-England cricket match tomorrow there were extra precautions (we were wanded by security people on the way into the hotel and the car was examined for any contraband in the trunk or on the undercarriage with a large mirror held under the car), they'd sent him off to park down the street, then it took time to come back around, be re-examined, and pull up to the front door.

On the way home, a stop for ice cream. Ahh. I am now prepared to sit at the yoga center again, waiting for students to observe, dreaming of ice cream. (Yesterday I had the best compliment: one of my favorite teachers, who is very smart and good at her job, told me that I should come back and stay for six months the next time and that I would be missed, and today she peeked into a room where I was observing and have me a cheerful hello. Felt very nice.)

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Tamil Nadu

A few photos from my husband's trip. This is the Emporer's Palace, inside a large receiving room, looking towards the ceiling. Why aren't all ceilings and pillars this pretty?
One of the many temples that he visited.
Carvings on the facade of the temple gopura, or tower. This is Lord Mruraga (a very special god to the Tamil, and an incarnation of Siva, I think) and his two wives (he thinks Walli and Diwalli, or something similarly rhyming, but again, more info tomorrow.)
Don't you think that Disney must have stolen the style for It's a Small, Small World? Nandi, the vehicle of Siva. (Every god has his own special vehicle, which is in the form of an animal. Ganesha's vehicle is the mouse, which makes some pretty amusing friezes and paintings of a very large, elephant-headed god riding on a mouse. It's all about the metaphor.)
Another cobra eating his tail, this one on the ceiling. Beautiful, isn't it? (Random Harry Potter fact: the name of Lord Voldemort's snake, Nagini? Comes from Hindu mythology. Go, J.K. Rowling.)

Rules are Rules

Every single time that I think, okay, nooooow I understand this yoga therapy stuff a bit, I've got the really important rules of what to do and not to do inscribed on my brain, and I think that I just might be getting the hang of this, they go and change the rules on me.

Today, after many months of having it drilled, I mean emphasized, that all movements should be moving movements instead of static, held positions, I observed three classes in which the student was instructed to hold her leg in a certain position for several breaths. I have never seen this given before. And though I am a newbie in the world of yoga therapy, I thought that I'd been taught, up and down the block, that the system is grounded on gentle movement in coordination with the breath.

When I asked my teacher the purpose of this pose, she gave me what felt like the "where have you been?" look (I was probably imagining this, because I feel that I should know this stuff and not be asking, even though why should I know this and how will I learn if I don't? maybe I can work on mind-reading, and then dabble in some Tarot in my free time) and explained that the students were in such severe back pain that we could only give them very very mild poses and almost no movement, because even the slightest movement was jarring.

Occasionally, I ruminate on the possibility that my mind is being played with, in an effort to show me that there are no rules. (Barely can I bear to write that. No rules? How will I ever learn this?) For example, another steadfast principle I've been drawing on is that nyasam, or very nice, small gestures that you make with the fingers while coordinating the movement with your breathing, is a good technique for creating a focus for the mind, improving concentration, and providing relaxation. Yesterday, a teacher told me no, nyasam are used for conditions such as stroke, tremors, or arthritis: as a way to get circulation and coordination to the hands. Today, another teacher used it for, yep, focus and relaxation. When I mentioned yesterday's conversation, she gave me the "where have you been look" and said no, nyasam are very useful for relaxation, particularly when the student is in such pain (see above regarding dynamic versus static movement) that she can do very little physical movement but needs a way to calm down an agitated mind.

And that rule about always applying oil (a theraputic oil used to improve the flow of prana and to ease muscle tension) in the direction of the heart toward the feet or hands, which is also in the direction of the flow of prana? Today, my teacher recommended that the student apply oil from ankle to knee instead of the reverse. Huh? I thought oil was always applied in the opposite direction, I suggested. No, that's when you want to improve circulation; this is for...honestly, now I can't even remember, because I was thinking, HUH?????

I wouln't mind all this back-and-forth, except, I do mind this back-and-forth because I am a person who learns things best when they make a tad of sense. Perhaps it's foolish of me to expect that something as complicated as healing someone's body or mind or spirit would come with a book of instructions. But there is so much to learn and I'm just wanting a little something to hang on to, every once in a while, so that I begin to feel that yep, I'm beginning to get this stuff. Instead, just when you think that you know that the world is turning clockwise, it reverses and turns in the opposite direction. My husband's take on this frustration is that I'm supposed to be learning that there are no hard and fast rules, and that each case is unique and must be approached in that spirit. I'm with him to a certain point on this. At the same time, handouts and tests and homework and the 75 observation sheets that I've completed in the last month give me the feeling that there must be some system at play. Or I'm not ready to completely give up the hope that maybe there is a teeny, weeny, tiny rule book that'll at least provide a starting block for the novice yoga therapist.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Rotary Club

How many times in life do you get to say this: my husband is giving a talk on American presidential elections at a Rotary club in Chennai tonight.

Not sure if I've mentioned this, already. He went to a meeting two weeks ago, where the evening's speech was on a topic directly in line with his professional work. What are the chances? Now, I asked him, are you ready to admit that maybe there is some sort of crazy plan at work and that everything isn't about coincedences? Anyway, in the way of all smart administrators, the person who organizes the entertainment/speech givers invited him to talk about a topic that confuses everyone in the world: how the heck does the Electoral College and popular vote work when we elect a President?

In reading the speech over, I learned (or relearned - this is like Algebra for me - no matter how many times I study it, it never sticks) a few new facts. Still not feeling completely up to snuff. So frustrating to be under the weather my last week in India, with so much to do. But I hate to miss this event - should be interesting.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Chennai Day Seventeen?

Some things that I have noticed about Chennai, with no suggestion that they are worse or better than the way things work at home. Mainly just different. And then, some things - exactly the same. In no particular order:
  • dogs sleep wherever they want to, generally on the side of the street just out of range of traffic. And I realized today what seems different: I have only seen one dog playing. That dog had a collar on, which is an unusual detail, and he was prancing through the deep water after the rain, reaching up to chew on the little boy who was walking along with him. Otherwise, the dogs seem very serious, are not famished but definitely look on the lean side, and are mostly lying down asleep. (I've seen only one dog who looked ill, and that was one of a litter of puppies on the walkway at the Shore Temple. He looked like the runt and my guess is that the mama had to prioritize who she could care for.)
  • Weather in the 70s and 80s is the equivalent of our 20s and teens. People talk about this being the time of year when many people become ill, because the temperature drops and it is windier. For some reason, this kills me every time Ihear it. I think that it's self-protection against the reality of how hot it will be if I manage to come back in August.
  • I was sad today because I think that the lady at the fruit stand inflated the price of the three tangerines that I bought. This is the first time that I've had her wait on me; usually, I go by in the mornings. I thought that she was saying that the price was 2 rupees - which made sense, because generally a bunch of fruit or vegetables are under 40 rupees. I handed her a 2 rupee coin and she made a gesture of polite refusal. There were several people shopping at once, many of them speaking to her in a strident tone, so maybe she is known to be a tough cookie. A man beside me translated that she was asking for 20, not 2 rupees. I paid and walked away, realizing only after I did so that it seemed super-expensive - in relative terms. And the man seemed perturbed. It was an uncomfortable moment.
  • I wish that I could go home to an established yoga therapy center, where we would see the number of interested students that come into this center in Chennai. I have been touched, amazed, impressed by all that they are doing with yoga. And it's not snake oil. Today I observed a man who is in his 70s, has had back pain for over 20 years, came last week for his first class, and is feeling better than he has in years. And a young woman, very thin, with lots of digestive problems, here for a few years while her husband works in Chennai, who was so eager and pleased to be learning yoga; for her, my teacher designed a practice to help strengthen her, improve liver functions, and help her gain some weight. And a teenager whose mother was glowing, and she was smiling shyly: they stopped in to the director's office to tell him how well things were going. In two weeks, she's lost 4 kgs. and as much as she must have felt like an insect under a microscope - she had her mom and four teachers looking at her at the same time - she had this beautiful smile, which seemed a little bit new. I'm not sure how the work will develop for me. Much of what they take for granted here is foreign to Americans: using sound to improve sinus conditions, very very gentle movements to improve flexibility, oil application for muscle spasms, different forms of breathing which can energize you or calm you or help burn weight off or aid an insomniac in falling asleep or help someone with chronic migraine go several years without a headache. But it is so effective in healing, and I hope that I can create the opportunity to apply all that I am learning. If you're interested in yoga therapy, please give me a call or email me when I get home!
  • Being the only Westerner feels very comfortable. I wasn't expecting it to be an issue, but am still surprised sometimes to realize that I am the only non-Indian person that I see every day when I walk to work. Unlike some places in Europe that I've visited, no one here hoots or whistles or even does much to notice me. I do feel a language barrier in some stores (there's a little grocery store, called a Departmental Store, where I can never seem to broach the barrier - today I put two cartons of juice on the counter but realized, when the young girl gave me the cost, that I only had enough money for one - and I could not seem to communicate that I was only purchasing the orange juice and not the apple juice too), but as a rule, people continue to be kind, welcoming, interested, receptive.
  • I did feel a bit out of place when I took out the garbage. Instead of the traditional salwar kameeze (a long tunic, loose pants - oh my gosh, drawstrings on all of them - so comfortable that I don't think I'll be able to go back to jeans, and the dupatta - the scarfy thing that drapes in front and trails down the back), I was wearing a sweater and a pair of capris. Not tight, but I realized that it was only the second time that I've been out of the apartment in non-Chennai clothes.
  • buying saris is like eating popcorn. It is very hard to stop, and no matter what you get, you (or at least I) want more. We went shopping the other evening for something for me to wear to a meeting that my husband will be speaking at. The best saleswoman - she reminded me of myself on a good retail day - eventually had me trying on saris. Even though I'd said, as we went in: "Do NOT let me look at a sari. Even if I want to. I do not need a sari." Thirty minutes later, I wanted to buy the everyday sari (tussar silk in a grey and pink pattern) and the dressier sari (amazing fabric, a silk, in a more modern pattern of grey and black stripes on a cream-colored background and silver thread along the edge). I bought only the everyday - and now need to connect with the recommended tailor to have an underskirt made (that's what you start the process of draping the fabric onto) and the little matching top. I am having buyer's remorse - I did not need this! - and a craving for a cotton or cotton-silk sari, which is truly the everyday sari that I should have purchased.
  • To a great extent, I am shielded from the more demanding qualities of being in Chennai. At the same time, India is so much more accessible and inviting and worth seeing than many people, even those who've been here, will tell you. With a nice driver, even for a few days, to help orient you to the city, Chennai is generally on the same continuum as being a tourist in New York City.
  • my husband is on a road trip. It is quiet around here; I am home this afternoon, taking it easy and trying to get over a gentle flu that is going around. I feel much better than I did this morning and expect to be back at work tomorrow. I'm up to about 55 observations and am looking to get in 25 more in the next 7 days.
  • Debbie: if you're reading this: this is the country for you. Ironing is very very big here; no one goes out in wrinkly clothes, and they even have people whose whole job is to iron.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Chennai Day Fifteen

This is the view from lunch on Sunday. (An actual salad of grilled peppers, eggplant, and tiny asparagus with shavings of actual Parmesean cheese, fabulous iced tea with lime and sugar syrup, and a curry of prawn and mango for me, the best calimari ever and a lamb curry for my husband). We left Chennai at 10 in the morning and drove out to see DakshinaChitra, a non-profit project for the preservation and promotion of the cultures of regions in the south of India. It's about one hour from Chennai, and after circumnavigating various escape routes which were backed up with traffic, and still many flooded streets, we made it out of the city. DakshinaChitra is reminiscent of Williamsburg, though on a much smaller, less Disney-fied level. The center, set in a quiet landscape of water, trees, and some grass, is the site of many indigenous houses from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries. The focus is on Tamil Nadu and Kerala - states in southern India - and crafts that are specific to the regions and times. This is the courtyard of the Merchant's House, I believe. I didn't take many pictures; I was too busy enjoying the quiet and the greenery and the calmness of the architecture. We walked through a potter's house, a Syrian Christian house, Hindu houses from two different regions, a shrine, and a farmer's house. The woodwork was beautiful, and almost every house had a wonderful central space or courtyard which was very serene. Most houses were shared spaces for several generations, and many had raised terraces within that would be occupied either by women or by the men, but not both genders together. Only one house had individual rooms for the family groups within the whole, where one generation could have some privacy within the multi-generation home. Roofs were made of curved red pottery tiles, in most cases, and doorways were low. At 5 foot 2 or so, I fit perfectly, kind of like visiting a Frank Lloyd Wright house, where the ceilings and furniture are often scaled down to accommodate the owners (as at Falling Water in Pennsylvania). On the other hand, every doorway had a small rectangular pillow tacked onto the lintel above the door; I 'd like to know how many visitors banged their heads before this device was instituted.
Here's what I came home with:

I ran into a good saleswoman... and suddenly, I was sitting with my left hand on her lap, as she applied a henna tattoo. These are traditional for brides and members of the wedding party, and was one of the crafts being demonstrated at Dakshina Chitra. (You could also make paper puppets or watch a demo of glass blowing or do Parrot Readings - which I'm sorry that we skipped - I will never know if the parrot chooses the card or actually reads it - or have tender coconut juice - a woman takes a giant machete, lops off the top of a green coconut, sticks a straw into it, and you drink the juice up - and this I did do - the juice is supposed to be really good for you.)

The henna is squeezed out of a triangular-shaped tube, similar to the icing used in cake decorating, and is about the same consistency. (She used a brand called Raja's Gold - you can see a tube of it on the right in the picture below.) It has a good aroma - a bit medicinal and a bit clean. The surprising part, even before you see the finished result, is that the ink is applied quite thickly, it is a dark brown color, and the longer she works, the more I thought - eek, this is a really big tattoo. (At least I didn't mistakenly go for her first offer of 100 rupees for the entire arm.) She was very adept at her skill and did the entire work freehand, while smiling and occasionally patting me on the knee, as I began to have buyer's remorse.
Here's a picture of the beginning of the tattoo. At this point, I thought - this is fun and something different, and I've always wanted to try a henna tattoo. And I had downgraded to the 50 rupee version, so I was expecting something small and not too surprising.
But this is one of those experiences that is hard to bail from midstream. And once she finished, I was to wait one hour before washing off the ink; during this time, the henna sinks into your skin, turns a dark turmeric color, and begins to tingle and eventually dry and begin to crack off. During this time, which my husband timed, I debated being a complete coward and going to the restroom to wash it off ASAP. Repeatedly. About halfway through the drying period, I thought of what my best friend at home would say if she could hear me whining. (My two biggest concerns: that I would offend Indians by engaging in a ritual not of my culture and that my workplace would not appreciate a tattoo across my palm and halfway up my forearm.) Then, I could hear her saying: "Janet, w--- the f--- does it matter what people think? Do you like it?" And I thought, yep, she's right, even if I was channeling her from several continents away.
Now, the truly shocking picture, it turns out, I do not have. Once I washed the ink off, scrubbing away at in a bathroom that had no soap or towels, I was shocked at how much of my skin is decorated. Also, that my palm and fingers, which are almost entirely covered with swirls and figures and may be a peacock-tail motif that grows from the peacock at the top of the arm, are very dark henna, while my arm is a much lighter shade. I needed to get used to it, and so, did not have a picture taken of the after shot. The truth is that I'm glad that I did it, glad that it is not permanent, and not one person at work noticed or commented, though I'm still surprised every time that I happen to look toward my hand. One thing is true: you will never forget your left from your right with a henna tattoo. Otherwise, so easy to do; it is very hard to be constantly aware of which hand you are using to hand over money or a piece of paper or a package. (And that whole left-hand, unclean thing: very confusing. The vegetable man would not take money from me when I handed it toward him with my left hand, and waited until I put it down on the counter to pick up; but at the concert Saturday, the woman in front of me was handing pastries out to her family with her left hand.) More observation is called for, but until the tattoo fades - in about a week to two weeks - I will have a strong visual to remind me of my left from my right.