Saturday, May 13, 2017

Dilaudid! the musical, or, the limits of equanimity

When the surgeon suggested switching from percocet to dilaudid at my first post-op appointment I have to confess that a wave of giddiness washed over me.  Dilaudid, or hydromorphone, is derived from morphine and in its liquid injectable form is significantly more potent than codeine-based opioids (e.g. vicodin, percocet, oxycontin, etc.).  Back in my junky days it was a most prized quarry, quite rare and hard to come by.  Now, it may seem at first glance to be dangerous for me, given my past, to be prescribed such a thing.  But the fact is that percocet was not working.   At least not appropriately.  It would offer maybe an hour of euphoria, which would then subside into queasiness and a return of the pain.  For most people, I concede, dilaudid would flatten them into a stupor.  But for me it works exactly as it ought.  When the pain comes on, the kind that wakes me from a stone sleep, I take it.  In about twenty minutes it kicks in and I get relief for about four hours.  Not only that, it doesn't make quite as fuzzy as percocet or nearly as fuzzy as weed. All this being said, here's what it really boils down to--  

We are told two things about pain in the Yoga tradition.  On one hand, we are told to take pleasure and pain with equal indifference.  We are told to be equanimous no matter what.  On the other hand, we are told to be focused.  All of the Ashtanga "rules" (that people either rail against or are self-righteous about following) are designed to create a life of limited distraction.  The ethic of creating a life focused on God or liberation is not unique to Yoga.  This is why, for one example, music per se is forbidden in more rigorous interpretations of Islam.  The sensuous pleasure of music distracts the believer's focus on God.  This may seem excessive but I think most Western people (or people raised in or around Abrahamic religious backgrounds) are at least hip to the notion of the dangers of pleasure for its own sake, even if they disagree.  

My own trip has been about coming to terms with the dangers of pain for its own sake.  Put succinctly: yes, we should be equanimous but at some point pain becomes a distraction.  Lately I've been making it my work to eliminate such distractions.  It's a cliche, perhaps, but when you really really want something you'll find you can let go of all types of hang-ups.  Think of the football player who takes up ballet to increase balance and flexibility.  Or think of all the sundry indignities to which parents subject themselves to keep their children happy.  So I'm trying to let go of my hang-ups about seeking help and seeking relief.  This is why I chose to have my other shoulder operated on.  I had the exact same injury, and I was uninterested in doing another five years of trying to work around it and seeing if it might heal itself somehow.  This is why I'm seeking help again for Depression.  Ultimately, at some point pragmatism comes in to play.  In a nod to another cliche, I've decided to light a candle instead of screaming at the dark.

Your equanimity within can be bolstered from without if you choose moderation.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Beginner's Body

"Let us return to old times, and that will be progress."--  Guissepe Verdi

"Everybody's got a plan until they get punched in the face."-- Mike Tyson

Seven weeks out from surgery and, like a fetus at the same number of weeks from conception, my practice is just beginning to resemble something like what it will eventually be.  At this point it is still forbidden for me to bear any weight on my arms but I can now begin reaching behind my back.  This means I can do all of the fundamental, or standing postures, and most primary series postures.  No suryanamaskara, vinyasas, purvatonnasana, bhujapidasana, or kukutasana.  For finishing I do three Jane Fonda bridges, viparita karani, and the lotus posture sequence.

Odd as it may sound to some, getting the SLAP lesion in my left shoulder fixed surgically was thrilling in several ways.  At a most base level, the prospect of finally getting to take Percocet with complete impunity was sweet.  On the other end of the spectrum (but still also at a most base level) I looked forward to the acute pain (as opposed to the chronic pain of the injury itself, which had been steadily eroding my emotional well-being).  I have been a masochist for as long as I remember and even now my standard physiological response to sharp, intense pain is to giggle.  It wasn't all drugs and whips and chains, though.  I was also thrilled to get this issue fixed, once and for all.  Although my shoulder is still really tender even as of this writing, I remain giddy at the prospect of getting lasting relief.  Finally, on a more intellectual level, I looked forward to the challenge of seeing if I could walk the talk so many yoga teachers do regarding non-attachment to practice and postures.  It is obviously very easy to tell people not to fret over their injuries when you are whole yourself.  It's probably at least as easy to tell yourself, while you are pontificating to your student, that if the roles were reversed you'd be fine.

And how did I fare in dealing with post-surgery restrictions?  I'd give myself a solid C+.  For the first two weeks after the operation it was easy to stay calm and unattached to practicing because the pain was still quite intense.  Practice simply wasn't an option.  During the next weeks I started to become restless about having my arm in a sling.  When the sling came off there was a new pain which again countered any restlessness.  The time in the sling had shortened and weakened the bicep such that even letting my arm hang down by my side loosely felt intensely stretchy.  The attachments and hang-ups over lost ground, as it were, came in earnest once I began physical therapy and once I started to fiddle around with asana.

First, the pain in my shoulder has hanged on longer than I expected.  One Pandora's box of questions: "Did this surgery even work?  Will it ever get better?  This is not really any different than before the operation.  Will I get to do tic-tocs ever again? Advanced A? Kapotasana, even?  And Jesus Christ, I'm fat.  What the fuck?"  Even though both my surgeon and my physical therapist and all the discussion threads with which I've consulted confirm that the persistence of pain at this stage is normal, I still doubt and worry.

Second, the back side of my body had closed up significantly in just four weeks of rest.  The pinching in my hamstrings when I did trikonasana B for the first time was really alarming.  Memories flooded back.  I remembered how I'd always hated that posture.  Same for paschimatonasana.  I wish I could say it was interesting to re-experience the opening of the body, particularly the back side of the body, that most beginners go through; that I had been able to sit there up in the cockpit of my Mind observing, taking measurements, making notes.  It wasn't the case for me, unfortunately.  I just found it unpleasant.

Now that it's been a week or so of doing some standing postures and forward bends, and that's all coming back, I'm antsy and eager for more.  Without suryanamaskara or vinyasa the practice feels so incomplete.  I also want to roll up my sleeves and begin helping my students again too.  Several of them need help on postures that would require more elbow grease than I am able to give.  My work now, it seems, is remain more in my head than in my body for the time being.  That is to say that instead of dwelling on what my body feels I must continue to trust what my mind knows-- that healing is happening and in somewhere between six months to a year I will be back in the saddle again completely.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Waiting at Miss Kat's house, or, A War Story Traded

Tonight is different.  You have finally put your foot down.  Typically on these runs into Coconut Grove you wait in the car.  To be clear, this is not the Grove of CocoWalk and Ransom Everglades, it's the other one--  the one in which even now,  just weeks ago, one of your best friend's elementary school students was almost hit by a stray bullet in a broad daylight shoot out.  This wait has always been nerve-wracking.  Five to fifteen minutes slumped down in the front seat, doing your best to remain inconspicuous, would seem interminable.  At least there was cover of night.  But now, in the new car you purchased a few weeks ago it seems impossible to remain inconspicuous and the wait has gone from nerve-wracking to terrifying.  So you put your foot down, and Jeffrey has acceded to let you come inside and wait in the living room.

With Jeffrey you drive up to Miss Kat's house, where your guy Michael Love rents a room.  You haven't dealt with Michael Love directly yourself very much.  He seems unremarkable, talks with an unhurried drawl.  He is country, no doubt.  The exchange of money and drugs is something you are kept out of, which may be just as well, so tonight when you go to Miss Kat's house you will wait in the living room while Jeffrey and Michael Love will sneak off to Michael's room.

The house itself reminds you very much of home, of Key West.  It is shotgun house, typical of those made by Bahamanian immigrants who came to South Florida towards the end of the nineteenth century.  The front balcony seems unstable, the exterior paint on all sides is peeling.  When you step inside the first thing you notice is the walls of living room, which are covered with family pictures spanning decades.  Those few spaces not covered by a framed picture reveal unpainted Dade county pine.  Through birth, death, love, strife, first steps of a child, high school graduations, military service... all of it-- this house has been passed down and down and down.  The residue of generations is palpable.

One picture in particular catches your eye.  A high school cheerleader, replete with pom-poms smiles brightly and proudly into the camera.  Her hair is relaxed, and her skirt goes down to just below her knees.  You estimate that this was taken some time in the late 50's; not before Rosa Parks but before Dr. King's speech and before Selma.  You stay transfixed by this and the other pictures, contemplating a time that seems to be fading fast from our collective memory but from which we are not as far removed as we'd like to believe.

Your reverie is disturbed by a stirring behind you.  Out of the room adjacent to the living room appears an older woman, dressed in nightclothes.  She snarfles and coughs loudly and productively.  A double take reveals that she is, in fact, the cheerleader from the picture that struck you so.  It is Miss Kat.  She is gracious and welcoming, and invites you to wait with her in her room. 

Patting the mattress with her hand, Miss Kat bids you to come and have a seat on her bed.  When you do, you notice an old chef's knife protruding from under the pillow.  "What's up with that knife, Miss Kat?" you ask.  "Man, my boyfriend been fuckin' with me.  But if he try to come up in here tonight, I'ma cut that motherfucker.  Believe that."  You do, and you can't help cringing when Miss Kat starts coughing again, easily bringing up a good tablespoon of phlegm which she promptly spits out the open jalousie window.  "Damn, Miss Kat, you don't sound so good.  You all
"Yeah, yeah, I just had this cold for a little while now, I'll be ok."
"You should rest and drink orange juice.  You know, for vitamin C."

This is the cue Miss Kat has been waiting for.  Her hands dart under the bed and she produces a plate which holds a razor, a quartered straw, and about a gram and a half of cocaine.  "I got your vitamin C right here," she says.  At this point in the game, you've seen your share of things but this still manages to astonish and delight you.  You express genuine gratitude for her largesse as she arranges some of the pile of blow into two thick long lines.  When you take the plate your astonishment and delight doubles as you take a closer look at the line you're about to hit:  soft, oily, smelling faintly of gasoline.  It iridesces pink and blue.  In short, the quality is superb.  Some cognitive dissonance arises, as you have come to understand that one shouldn't get powder cocaine from places like the Grove.  Everybody knows that anything from here is stepped on repeatedly and only a sucker would get anything but heroin from this neighborhood.

Miss Kat goes first, inhaling her line with practiced aplomb.  Sharing a straw to be placed up your nose with this obviously sick woman isn't even an afterthought-- it is no thought at all.  After you hit, you sit and chat for a few more minutes about nothing, really.  And then Jeffrey comes out of Michael Love's room with the heroin you really came for anyway and that's that.

You never see Miss Kat again.  You haven't seen Michael Love in at least seventeen years, nor are you particularly inclined to see him either.  Jeffrey wanders in and out of your life, but you've cut him loose too.

The power of memory persists, though, giving all of these broken souls a quantum existence.  They are gone, but they are not.  You hope never to see them again, but they remain in your heart and mind, contributing to who you have become.  For this you are grateful, and you hope earnestly that wherever they are they have ceased suffering.  You love them. 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

some poetry, meditations on impotence and death written over a span of many years

O!  When will I be heard?

How do I know this?  How can I say this?  From whence my authority, you ask?
Because of the size of my cock. It's like a can of tennis balls.  Well, not my actual cock (wouldn't that be great?  maybe I could finally get some goddamn fucking respect around here...).    No,  I mean the cock in my Mind.  You gotta have a big cock somewhere, whether in the Mind or the body.  Best to have both, but barring that, you gotta link'em somehow.  Like yoga.  Some have both, some have neither.  For them it's easier, more simple.  Most who have only one just wish they had the other.  Maybe if I jam a knitting needle into one of my tear ducts as far as it will go my actual cock will get bigger.  You know, a trade-off.  Then maybe I could finally get some respect around here.  That would be great.


Nobody would've made a documentary of my life had I died when I was 27.  (which, as anybody who knows me knows I almost did.  so cool....)  Alhamdulillah memory of me would've faded by now, like so many of my dog's stale farts.  and then what?  quiet. darkness. peace. solitude. an entity unto myself, a black hole faintly glowing in the void for who knows how long.  unthinking, dispassionate.   fuck.  i should've died when i was 27.

But I didn't die.  curiosity (along with evolutionary hardwiring) keeps me going now, i suppose.  a different, new quest--- why wait for death?  need we die in order to experience solitude?  for the wind to cease? to glow faintly in the void?  can i be a beacon?  maybe.  fuck. no. yes

Haiku: I-75 in the summer

A whirling helix
vultures dance in an updraft
transfix'd, I drive on

un reve

I dreamt that I had been dead
or at least mistaken to be dead.
We were in Captain and Gran's old house (not Captain and Gran's house)
I remembered my death, a tumbling falling thing.  My brother
is the last thing I saw, then blackness.  Calm.
My concern was whether or not I had been embalmed
while dead, or mistaken to be dead.
We were in a harbour.
Eddie Rivera showed me my grave marking:
an ugly welcome mat with my name on it nailed
to a dock

Monday, November 24, 2014

vom kriege

When I was quite young, perhaps five or six, and fishing for tales of high adventure, I asked my father about war.  His answer was as disappointing as it was unsettling: "Son, war is like a glass that has been dropped, and it is riddled and run through with cracks, and it is never the same again."  This is a paraphrase from dim memory, but the image of the world as the bulb of a wine glass, irreparably cracked yet still intact, still haunts me.

My father had been an officer in the US Navy. During the Viet Nam War he was a gunnery officer on  the USS George K. McKenzie.  Although he was involved in combat missions and was exposed to hostile fire, his experience of the war was nothing at all like that which was depicted in the two iconic Viet Nam War films of my youth:  the sensational Platoon and the more artsy Full Metal Jacket.  In fact, I remember my father often making light of his war experience.  He would say that most of his time was spent eating ice cream and watching movies. Owing to the cryptic response to my question from when I was very young, I always he knew he was being disingenuous.   The killing in which my father participated may have been in one sense impersonal, or perhaps abstract.  That is to say, the targets of the guns he commanded were for the most part several miles away and barely in sight.  Still, I know the war never left his mind, or his heart, and it certainly never left his body.

When my father was diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma we all joked at first, given his relative distance from "the action," about it being caused by his service in the war.  But that is exactly what the cause was.  Soft tissue sarcoma is a relatively unusual cancer and has been linked to exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical used during the Viet Nam War to defoliate trees.  The idea was to diminish the enemy's ability to hide and use camouflage.  Thousands of veterans were afflicted with various illnesses because due to exposure to Agent Orange, ranging from cancer to birth defects in children.  Dow Chemical was eventually deemed culpable.  Although it seemed unlikely at first, the VA determined that my father had been exposed to the chemical sufficiently enough to warrant inclusion into the massive class action suit against Dow Chemical.  My father remained stoic and absolutely courageous throughout his treatment, which included chemotherapy, radiation therapy, the removal of his right adductor muscle, hyperbaric oxygen treatment for gangrene caused by an infected portacath, removal of a gangrenous vein in his right arm, a skin graft to cover the removal of said vein, numerous other minor (but nevertheless painful) infections, and the removal of one and a half lungs.  The cancer, which had first surfaced in his right thigh (he initially thought it was just a pulled muscle), metastasized to his lungs and kept coming back.

One of my father's final acts of courage was to my mind his greatest.  In the late summer of 1994, he decided to cease treatment and let the disease take its course.  He conquered what yogis call the affliction of abhinivesha, or the irrational fear of death and clinging to life.  Seven of his last eight weeks were spent at home with my mother.  He fished almost every day.  On November 24th, 1994, on Thanksgiving Day, my father died at home in his bed, unconnected to any machines.  He was unconscious from morphine and I, my brother, and, my mother were in the room with him.

 It is no understatement to say that my father's death, anticipated though it was, shattered me.  For fifteen years at least my relationships with my mother and brother were compromised.  I entered into an ill-advised marriage, became a junky... in general I continued to cause more suffering for myself and those closest to me.  I have found some measure of peace lately.  The ripples have abated somewhat, you could say, but the cracks remain.

I don't apologize for holding a mechanical, deterministic worldview.  It doesn't preclude one from hope or faith, nor even notions of accountability, to know that there is no denying the force of the past.  War and its echoes never cease.  Even the coldest cold of deep space is kept above absolute zero due to subtle, lingering radiation from the Big Bang. The glass, the fabric of existence, goes on for as long as we can conceive, and the cracks of old and new cataclysms continue to run through it unceasingly.  Still, it never disintegrates.  For all this, nature is never spent.  I remember this when the weight of history becomes too onerous, and I only want to go to sleep.  Besides, I have duties to others which I may have shirked before, but am determined to honor now. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

what to do? how to act?

This weekend, at the wedding of one of my oldest and dearest friends, I was able to ask a question of one of the guests that has of late been gnawing at me: does Iggy Azalea put you off, or make you uncomfortable?  Truth be told I was coming a little sideways, and although genuinely curious to know, I was actually also setting up a different but related question.  More on that later.  For those (mercifully) unaware of current pop culture, wondering who Iggy Azalea is, this is her deal: she is a rapper/singer and she is very very big these days.  She is also white, blonde, strikingly lovely, and from, of all places, rural Australia.  When she raps and sings she adopts all the speech patterns and inflections of a young African American. I've read it referred to as a "blaccent."  When she first came on the scene, her normal, non-performative speech was in her Australian accent.  Lately she has tried to incorporate the "blaccent" into her normal speech as well; but she can't really cover the Australian accent so she just sounds strange.  In any event, Iggy Azalea has come under fire for committing the insidious sin of cultural appropriation.  (Is it really a sin?  Yes.  But more on that later also.)  It is argued that she is simultaneously cashing in on a culture not her own while squeezing out other artists who are actually from said culture.  To Iggy Azalea's critics, when she raps: "First things first, I'm the realest," in her break out hit "Fancy," it resonates as an obnoxious fuck you to those unsigned black and brown female rappers who are equally or more skillful, but perhaps not as physically attractive, and, of course, certainly not white.

At this point you may be asking yourself: what does this have to do with yoga?  But see what happens when you refine the question to: what does this have to do with the ancient Indian spiritual/religious technology called yoga which is now practiced far and wide by non-Indian people, mostly of European descent, in a distorted way and bolsters a multi-billion dollar industry?  It's quite clear.  In many cases cultural appropriation, which is a kind of supremely subtle systemic violence, is happening. I want no part of it.  I want no part of eroding Indian culture, of insulting Hinduism, of disrespecting, especially under the auspices of good or best intentions.  This is of course what makes cultural appropriation so subtle and insidious: most people doing it genuinely have affection for the culture they are appropriating.  Further complicating matters is the fact that some people from the cultural under assault, as it were, feel that nobody from outside ought to take part in any way, shape or form and anybody who tries is an asshole.  If you ever read through postings and their comment threads concerning yoga and authenticity you will find that many Indians, both from the sub-continent and the diaspora, hold this view.  It's an extra goopy morass, to be sure.  Because while I am committed to respecting India and Indians, I am also even more committed to practicing yoga in order liberate my soul from suffering and rebirth.  I, for one among many other earnest practitioners, am in it for the kaivalya [ultimate liberation and solitude].  What to do?  How to act?

Back to Gera's wedding.  The guy whom I asked about Iggy Azalea, whose name is Jafari, was also part of Gera's party.  They met as undergraduates at Morehouse College and Jafari is now a professor of Anthropology and African American Studies at Yale University.  One would be hard pressed to find more sterling bonafides for discussing cultural appropriation.  To the Iggy Azalea question, he said that her schtick was, in fact, off-putting.  But her perhaps even greater sin was that her music sucks, and that it troubles him that his nieces and nephews perceive it to be good hip hop.  No argument there.  Iggy Azalea's music really does suck shit through a straw.  We both had a chuckle as we recalled John Waters's differentiation between good bad taste and bad bad taste.  Then, I pivoted into the issues from the preceding paragraph.  What to do?  How to act?

Jafari spoke briefly in academese, about among some other things the evils of the illegitimate assumption of sociological critical distance, but my academese is a little rusty so I'm not totally sure I understood everything.  He also told me to be earnest, and to follow my heart and my conscience and never to lose awareness.  My overall takeaway from our conversation is that when participating in the cultural activities of other cultures, e.g. being a white rapper or a Western yoga practitioner, it's important to remember this paraphrase of the old spiritual diktat: we can be in that world, but never of it.  It may not seem fair, but if you can accept there will always be some distance, some differentiation, then appropriate and genuine respect is possible.   At the heart of respect there is an element of unconditional concession.  You must allow differences, even if only intellectually, before yours can be allowed.   When this kind of respect is there, as opposed to mere affection, then it is very hard, I think, if not impossible, for cultural appropriation to happen.   Affection is all well and good, but ultimately it means dick without respect.  It can even be dangerous.  Be earnest, follow your heart, remain respectful, remain curious so you can find out what may constitute disrespect and follow through on your findings.  This is imperative.

Monday, September 8, 2014

de officium et felicitas

Yesterday I finished reading a collection of essays called Medium Raw, written by food and travel authority Anthony Bourdain.  There is a passage at the end of his chapter on a chef named David Chang which elicited an insight.   A little context for those readers who are non-foodies: Mr. Chang is an enormously influential chef who has several restaurants in New York City.  He is relatively quite young and exhibits many of the tropes commonly associated with great artists-- self-doubt, mercurial temperament, drive, and, of course, rare talent.  So, here's the passage:

...a few days later I ask [his friend] Peter Meehan what he thinks makes David Chang really and truly happy--- if the wheels can ever stop turning, he relaxes, takes a deep breath of free air, nothing on his mind.   "I've seen it," Meehan says.  "It's there.  But he doesn't pursue it.  His happiness is not a priority in his life.  It's an incidental benefit, but he's not dead to it.  Maybe, if someday he realizes that happiness can help him achieve his goals, he'll give a shit about it."

Is this sad?  Pathetic, even?  Here's a young man sitting at the peak of his profession and yet he can't, or won't, enjoy it because he's only focused on greatness, as it were.  Why put it in all that work, endure all that suffering for something that can never be enjoyed?  I, for one, however, find this to be not sad but instead a source of great inspiration.  It boils down to a single word: dharma.  Unfortunately, it is a tricky word to translate.  In the Hindu sense (for Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs, respectively, it has slightly different meanings and connotations) dharma can mean many things, including law, order, duty, custom, model, "path of righteousness."  My understanding of the term includes all of these, and also purpose and a little dash of destiny or fate.

Dharma is the supreme directive.  It overrides love, happiness, and even morality when necessary.  There is a fine illustration from the Old Testament of dharma trumping morality in the story of Abraham and Isaac.  Abraham accepts that his dharma is to obey God, even if it means being willing to commit the shockingly immoral act of killing his own son.  Fortunately for Isaac, the mere acceptance of the dharma satisfies God and Abraham is not obliged to follow through.  And, of course, in the Bhagavad Gita Krsna reminds Arjuna that he is a warrior first, and a brother/cousin/nephew/disciple second.  Mr. Chang, it would appear, has realized that he is a chef first, and all other considerations, including happiness, must come second.  He is acting according to his dharma.

We, in the United States, at least, live in a culture obsessed with happiness-- a Prozac culture replete with bonafide happiness shaming.  I, for one, have been led to believe that there was something wrong with me for not feeling happy at all times.  For example, I frequently see Facebook memes and posters featuring figures like Osho (whose image, I must confess, makes my skin crawl every time I see it, may he rest in peace) saying something to the effect of:  happiness is our natural condition.  Or that happiness is our birthright.  Fuck that.  It sounds more and more like bullshit to me, I'm afraid.  At least it runs counter to my understanding of Krsna's message in the Bhagavad Gita.  We are entitled to our dharma, not our happiness.  Happiness may or may not come if we act according to our dharma.  It doesn't matter.  This is why Mr. Chang's story resonated with me.  While I accept that many may find this to be textbook slave morality, or profoundly pessimistic at best, I must say that I find it supremely comforting to accept that there is a purpose beyond ourselves.

This begs a serious question; how do you know what your dharma is?  This is why so many faith systems have the directive of "know thyself."  It is my earnest hope that anyone who engages in serious self inquiry will discover what his or her dharma is.  Once discovered it leads to a profound sense of peace and security, one that I hope all will have the good fortune to feel.