Friday, June 24, 2011

Meditation and Metaphors

Who hasn't thought about meditating? And why not? I've only ever heard good things about its benefits. Yet, like the author of Eat, Pray, Love, learning how to do it presents problems. Emptying ones mind of thoughts is nigh impossible. And if you do happen to do it, for like one second, then what? So, when I was invited to join a beginner's class in meditation about six months ago, I was happy to try it, and it has turned out to be a very meaningful part of my life.

There are many kind of meditation, but the one I've been introduced to is Taoist. According to my instructor/leader, "The Taoist practice is based upon cultivating a surrendered relationship to one's own intuitive knowing, and using energy in alignment with that to help/heal oneself and others."

So, what have I learned? How to sit, how to bow in, how to position my hands, how to calm the mind and "stop the tapes," how to breathe, how to listen, how to focus on different important points in the body, how to make an intention, how to "read" another person, how to give energy as well as receive it, how to experience the many levels of depth in meditation, how to love it. All of this in just about a dozen sessions! It's pretty amazing, and I'm sure this is just the tip of the iceberg. I'm still just "Beyond Beginners."

Like many things, meditation is very personalized. People come to it for different reasons, they experience it differently, and they take different things away. I didn't know what to expect, or what I wanted to get out of it, so I quickly made something up like "focus and direction" when asked about that. I'm not sure that's what I've gotten, but I have gotten many other things: acceptance, calm, energy, enlightenment, patience, and knowledge, for instance. I've learned that there are many layers to meditation, from thought to emotion to energy to spirit to connection to the universe. I've learned that you let it happen; you don't force it. Emotions will spill out when the boxes you have locked them in open. It's useful to just "sit with" the feelings and see what happens. I've had tears streaming down my face at times without even knowing why. Deep joy and deep sadness have both visited me. Energy can be transferred to another person. I've done it and it doesn't deplete my own. In fact, I feel more energized. It is possible to see and feel things about other people and for them to do so for me. No matter how long I meditate, when, or where, it's always helpful. The more I practice it, the more I learn.

Meditation is made up of metaphors, signs, and symbols. They might be colors, a feeling (warmth, pain, etc.), movement (in my case, lots of it), sound (some people are very vocal with spontaneous sound), places (a basement, the ocean, a mountain), images (light, figures, animals, water, a rainbow, a dog). It's amazing because they are not forced; they just appear. The challenge might be to make sense of them.

One little story: One time I was meditating with another person, touching back to back. Several things appeared to me, but one particularly odd one was cowboys. Several times, cowboys appeared in front of my mind. (Note: I never think about them.) When I shared this with the other person, whom I barely knew at all, I expressed my puzzlement. She said it wasn't surprising to her, at all, because her family came from Oklahoma and was filled with cowboys and Native Americans! Don't know how/why that happened, but it's pretty cool. Maybe I'll get a job at the Renaissance Festival next year.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Demise of the Martini

I learned to like martinis from my dad. He could shake up the perfect martini for a pre-dinner cocktail and make it look easy as pie. I think that's part of what made it easy to drink, too. Now, I'm talking about real martinis--with gin and vermouth and olives--not these silly fake ones that they call martinis. It's often difficult nowadays to get an original martini at a restaurant or bar. They keep trying to pass off drinks with chocolate, pomegranate, lemonade, and who knows what else as martinis. They often have no "real" martini on the "martini menu." How did this happen?

I blame it on marketing, of course. (Sorry, Jack.) People like the "idea" of a martini. They like the sound of it. They like the fancy glass it is served in. And they like sweet and pretty drinks for nine or more bucks each. Yes, it's the "martini personalized experience" that people want, not the gin, vermouth, and olives.

So, I find it hard to get a real martini these days. More often than not, the bartender messes it up and I have to return it. It started a few years ago at a so-called American on-base bar in Sigonella, Sicily. Unfortunately, the bartenders were Italian. They used sweet vermouth instead of dry and had no olives to boot! I got fed up, went to the commissary and came back with a jar. At that time, I forgave them, for they were Italians, and what did they know about martinis? I found that several of my female friends there were also martini lovers, AND they knew how to make them perfectly! So we had several TGIF "real martini" parties in Sicily, complete with the vermouth sprayer, chilled glasses, gin, and, of course, olives! (See photos!)

Recently, I've had to send back a lot of martinis, it seems. One place gave me just gin (no vermouth or olives). Others fail to add the olives (it's not a martini without). Many forget the "rocks" and try to serve it to me "up," which is never what I order. So, what is it? Untrained bartenders? Inattentive waitpeople? I'm not being clear? I would estimate the amount of time I actually get what I ordered on the first try to be about 50%. So, not only is it hard to find a "real" martini, but it's as hard to get one!

Mosaics and Metaphors

I don't remember when and where I first became enchanted with mosaics, but it happened sometime between 1990 and 2000. Was it the first time I saw original Roman mosaics, or Byzantine, or Arab? Was it Tunisia, Turkey, Cyprus, Aqueleia near Venice, the Vatican, Pompeii, Bath (England), a German museum, or another place? I went on to search for the really important ones, driving from Germany all the way to Ravenna, Italy, for a weekend to see the "City of Mosaics." I searched out the Chora in Istanbul and stood in awe of these ancient Christian mosaics inside a church-turned-mosque-turned-museum. In Rome, I tracked down obscure churches with the oldest mosaics. When I moved to Sicily, I was lucky to be near the famous UNESCO Roman site of Villa Armerina (more photos HERE) and the Monreale Cathedral near Palermo, as well as dozens of other mosaic masterpieces on the island.

Anyway, at some point, I became interested in doing mosaics, perhaps when I saw different instances of their being repaired or created. There is little time for doing anything when you are a full-time teacher, but what a great idea for retirement! Luckily, I retired in Atlanta, a city of 5 million, where one can find classes or lessons on just about anything. Mosaic beginner classes were found, and early in 2010, I began.

So, it turns out, mosaics are like soccer--easy to learn, impossible to master. The good points about it are (1) there is no "perfect," (2) it's okay, even good, to break things, and (3) you can mosaic anything rigid (except people). Some people don't even have a plan or design when they start; they just let it evolve as it happens. Basically, you stick things (tile, glass, stones, broken plates) to a rigid surface (which can even be rounded, like a flower pot), and then fill in the spaces between the pieces with "grout." Grout makes everything look better, even almost professional.

I take my mosaics classes at the Spruill Center for the Arts, and I actually travel OTP (outside the perimeter) for them! In Atlanta, that's like going to the outer limits of space. Spruill, however, is just a big outside the perimeter, and it's such a great place, it's worth the driving adventure. I have hugely enjoyed the laid-back, non-threatening atmosphere of the class, the knowledgeable and supportive instructor, a wide range of classmates, and the satisfaction of learning and improving with each project. I have completed about six projects and am increasingly happier with each one. I am most interested in re-creating the old Roman designs I have seen and photographed, like this tabletop that I made most recently.

When I was teaching in Sicily, I took my AVID (college prep) students on a field trip to the famous mosaics at Villa Armerina. Upon our return, I engaged them in writing a metaphor essay in which they compared their lives to a mosaic. The results of that trip and writing lesson were fabulous. See a brief article HERE. And perhaps that is what draws me ultimately to mosaics. You take a lot of little pieces and put them together into something meaningful. I hope that when the mosaic of my life is done, it has meaning, too.

Small segment of wall mosaic at Monreale, Sicily.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Squares of Savannah

Savannah, Georgia, is a place I've been wanting to visit for years. Recently I spent a few days there with my friends Elsie and Michael and was not disappointed. In fact, I was charmed by what I can only call its "Europeanness:" the cobblestones, the wrought iron, the history, and especially the squares.

Savannah is famous for its historic houses, shaded streets made of brick or stone, and Spanish moss, but they all are mere decorations for the twenty-four squares that anchor the city. They started out as four squares in 1733, one for each ward, and were originally used for military exercises. As the city grew, more wards were added to the grid and a square with each one. The streets are laid out such that traffic flows counter-clockwise around each square, functioning as a traffic circle of sorts. The squares are fairly uniform in size, too, all measuring roughly 200 feet from north to south and ranging from 100-300 from east to west. They are named mostly for famous people (generals, politicians, royalty, Indian chiefs) and many have monuments or statues to these people. But that doesn't take away from the huge, shady trees and beautiful flowers and shrubbery. You can take an internet tour of all the squares HERE.

But it is the green space and its use of it that make so charming and unique and European. You can walk all the squares of Savannah or view them from one of the many city tours. Walking is best, because then you get into each square and become like a local. We saw people walking, reading, daydreaming, drawing, kids playing a game at recess, and everyone was relaxed and in synch with their city. There is nothing like this for me to walk to and sit down in Atlanta. Oh, there are parks, many of them, and some very large, but there is not a shady, peaceful square every two or three blocks. How many cities can boast that? I don't know of any but Savannah at the moment.

Everyone drives everywhere in Atlanta (adding to the traffic problem) but in Savannah, people still walk or ride bikes, making it a much more pleasant place and pace. I parked my car when I got there and did not use it again until I left the city, much like many places in Europe (Berlin, most recently). The historic district is all strictly protected and changes cannot be made without a "Permit of Appropriateness," thus ensuring against the visual litter of most cities. They can do whatever they want on the inside, but the exterior must match the neighborhood. Savannah was the first American city planned around public squares. I hope it's not the last.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"Happy Days Are Here Again" or Where to Find Happiness in a Red State

"Happy days are here again" is inscribed on a shot glass along with a picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that I bought last weekend. The cashier in the FDR Museum gift shop said, "There are two stories behind this shot glass, you know." I knew the first one--that was the song title of FDR's presidential campaign, and it is still played at Democratic conventions and election celebrations. The second story had slipped my mind--Prohibition was repealed during FDR's presidency. "Oh, yes," I told the cashier, "I have a photograph of my grandfather, who ran a tavern, with a portrait of FDR proudly displayed behind the bar." She said, "Oh, my, that gives me goosebumps!"

So, there is a soft spot in my heart for Roosevelt and all he did to lead the country out of Prohibition, the Depression, and through World War II. He died unexpectedly of a stroke on April 12, 1945, just as the Allies were racing to Berlin. The newspaper that day shows the map of Europe. We had already taken Wuerzburg; the Nazis still held Nuernberg. The headline proclaims: "57 Miles From Berlin." This paper is one of the many interesting artifacts at the FDR "Little White House" and Museum in Warm Spring, Georgia, about an hour and half south of Atlanta. The FDR State Park and the Roosevelt Warm Springs Rehabilitation Center are also nearby.

In fact, it was the natural warm springs that drew Roosevelt here to Georgia in 1924 in hopes of finding some relief from his polio. He bought the property, built pools and a treatment center, and then had a small house built. It was completed in 1932, when FDR was governor of New York. He continued to go there often during his four elected terms as president, which is when it became known as "The Little White House." And is here that he died.

The house, guest house, and servants' quarters are all preserved exactly. It's hard to imagine a president of the United States staying often in such humble surroundings. It reminds me very much of a modest vacation cottage one might rent in Wisconsin or Michigan--a tiny living room, three small bedrooms, dining room, kitchen and foyer, certainly not more than about 1,000 square feet. The interior is pine paneling and floors. There are four single beds. There is a large semi-circular patio off the back, overlooking the Georgia pine woods. Except for the Marine sentry shacks and one for the Secret Service, nothing would indicate a president lived there. That and FDR's indoor wheelchair.

There is a nice little FDR museum and a separate room dedicated just to the day he died. The museum has some great memorabilia, from FDR's swimming outfit to his 1929 Ford convertible that he drove himself. It was specially outfitted with hand levers for the crippled president. It's actually a real nice overview of FDR's personal life on a smaller scale. Photos of FDR are displayed with some of the artifacts, making them even more real. The so-called "Unfinished Portrait," for which FDR was sitting the very day he died, is on display, along with the cook's lunch menu for the day and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Although it is well off any beaten path, there were quite a number of visitors there on the Sunday I was, many of whom were foreign visitors. One of the displays in the museum shows three presidents who have visited the site (all Democrats, of course): President Kennedy, President Carter (who launched his campaign there), and President Clinton.

With such a huge historical Democratic presence in the county, I wondered how they voted nowadays and if FDR still had influence there. I came home and looked up the last presidential results, the one won by Democrat Barack Obama in 2010. Georgia is, of course, a "red" (Republican) state these days. Warm Springs lies in Meriwether County (pop. @ 22, 000). Obama earned 47% of the votes, losing narrowly to McCain. It's hard to fathom how that happened, and I'm pretty sure FDR isn't happy about it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sweet Auburn Curb Market

I had been to the DeKalb Farmers Market and the Buford Highway International Market but never heard of the Sweet Auburn Curb Market until I was recently invited there by someone new whom I met. Mickey wasn't just another customer there; she actually worked one day at week at the market helping a friend with a business there. So, she has an insider's view of the Curb Market, which is where I got most of this information.

It reminded me immediately of a smaller version of markets I'd seen in Boston, Baltimore, and Helsinki, with an assortment of butchers, bakers, candlestick makers and places to eat as well as fresh produce and a pharmacy. It has been around since 1918, first in a massive tent, and then in the building it still occupies, at 209 Edgewood Ave. SE near downtown Atlanta. At the time it was established, it was at the geographic center of Atlanta. Today, it's a quiet neighborhood (as quiet as it can be underneath I-75/85) near Georgia State University and Grady Memorial Hospital and adjacent to the Auburn Avenue/Martin Luther King, Jr. district.

It's a dichotomy, a market "in transition" in a neighborhood "in transition." That's a popular phrase here in Atlanta used to describe "sketchy" places. Anyway, it's perfectly safe and a fun place to go and hang out and shop and have some great food. It feels like you are going back in time except for the organic shops, restaurants, and coffee shop. Therein lies the dichotomy, and so the market it teetering on the edge, deciding if it has to be one thing or the other or if it can be everything to everybody.

Some of the newer "organic" businesses are having a tough time, and several have gone under. Yes, organic does cost more. Does the market have the customers to support it? Does it have the marketing? Can it? Can it compete with the bigger ones? Should it?

While the building is a classic from the early 1900s, it could perhaps draw more business, especially for the new vendors, with some renovations and improvements. A facelift, inside and out, better signage, improved parking, to start with, could only improve the "experience" of visiting the market, which should be part of the marketing campaign.

I will say this--I have never been able to find real Georgia peaches in the other markets or the supermarkets. So, where do they go? Maybe, just maybe, I will be able to get them here at the Curb Market.

Organic, authentic, delicous Italian food at Ciao Bocca!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Alles in Ordnung

On a recent trip to Germany, I was reminded again of German law and its long arm in the lives of people living there. This would never fly in the U.S. of A. where "individual rights" reign above all!

In Germany, if you have a sidewalk, you must shovel it free of snow by 7 A.M. so that people can walk to work or wherever. In Atlanta, (1) it rarely snows, (2) no one has a snow shovel, and (3) even if they did, just try and make them use it! Ha! "I don't want to" or "I don't have to" would be common responses (and those are the polite ones).

Germany has a number of "pet laws," including one that requires you to walk your dog every day for at least an hour. This would never fly in Atlanta, where dogs are left on their own in yards, on chains, or in the house for as long as the owner wants. Yes, there are many "good" owners who walk them, but they must be a minority, certainly less than half. My daughter had a neighbor in Augusta, GA, who moved and left the dog in the yard (he had a doghouse). The house remained empty and the own came once in a while to feed the dog. Sad, very sad.

One of Germany's newer pet laws requires the owner to secure a dog that is riding in a car with either a barrier between the dog and the driver or a leash and collar that are attached to the back seat, like a seatbelt for dogs. Much safer, don't you think? But in Atlanta, dogs ride in the back of pick-ups, in the front seat, or even on the driver's lap if they want.

Germans have laws for everything: you must wash your windows inside and out twice a year, refrain from hanging out laundry, washing your car, or cutting the grass on Sunday (a day of rest), and you can't have your car running if you are not in it (no matter how cold it is). There are hundreds more, and everything runs predictably and logically. But we American have the right to be noisy, disturb our neighbors, have dirty windows, and warm up our cars (and the air), don't we? It's good for us, so who has the right to regulate such things? They also are required to recycle by law. Five or more different containers to collect your trash and specific times and places to dispose of them. We are lucky to get people to put trash IN the compactor here.

"Alles in Ordnung" means "everything in order," which is very un-American.