Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking Back on 2015, Looking Ahead to 2016

Hands down this has been the year of Karate.

I poured a lot of spirit and effort into advancing to my next rank and I couldn't be happier.
I've grown much as a martial artist this year and have even started assistant teaching Tai Chi.

At the start of the year I couldn't understand how to throw a front-snap kick to face-height.  I can do it now, but not with a lot of power behind it.
Roundhouse kick with the ball of the foot? Got it.
I wanted to be able to do a full split: I'm even closer now than I was.
I wanted to be able to do 50 push-ups without stopping...okay, that goal go tweaked.  I decided it was more realistic to do push-ups in smaller bursts; say 12-15.  So I do a bunch of small groupings and that seems to be working well.

Next year with see my beloved Sensei retiring in January.
Though the school will continue under the tutelage of a new head instructor, I'm not sure what that will mean for my practice personally.
Torch-passing aside, my martial arts goals for next year are to:
• Improve my spinning techniques
• Get more power behind all my kicks
• I really need to continue to improve my sparring (the boxing lessons are helping)
• Need to learn more joint locks.  So many more joint locks!!

If I push it, I might be able to test for my 1st Kyu rank at the end of the school year.  If not then, then maybe by the end of next year.  We'll see.

This year was also the year my father-in-law, Dick passed away (ironically on Independence Day).
Caring for him in his final months was a very powerful and empowering experience for me.

After his passing I was able to reclaim my house (he was living with us for a good portion of last year and all this spring, being mostly bed-bound in the last month he was living at the house).
The coming year will see my husband and I cleaning out the camp that Dick had occupied during the summer months for many, many years.

Since Dick was a hoarder, this will not be a quick or easy process; especially since the camp can only be accessed by boat.  Most of our weekends this coming summer will likely be spent on that "little" project.

The other big thing that happened this year was that I participated in my final Sun-Moon Dance. (As in I completed my four-year commitment).
This year's Dance was gentle on me (thankfully) and I was able to really touch and let go of some deep pain I hadn't realized I'd been holding.  It was a truly beautiful experience (as it always is).
If I participate in any Dances in the future, it'll be on the support side and I'm curious and excited to pursue that angle of the Dance.

In other news: my business partner really wants to get back into making products for our crafting business.  We've both been laying low the past couple years since last year we focused on my wedding and this year I was distracted by caring for Dick and getting my next Karate rank.
Though our business (and sales) has actually grown this year, we really want to get sewn products into our inventory and we're hoping to start making bags this winter and spring.

We're also researching larger venues to sell our wares.  It's pretty exciting and scary at the same time!

We both are also very much feeling the itch to belly dance again - another activity that has suffered for the past two years for the same reasons.  We're looking into tumbling or adult gymnastics classes to improve our strength and flexibility and to spice up our duet dance routines even more.

On a personal level I'd like to get back into writing.  I didn't participate in NaNoWriMo this year and I have no regrets on that front; but I have three projects that are languishing in various states of completion that I'd very much like to return to and guide along their way.

I also keep glancing around the edges of going back to school or getting a different job.
Not that I don't like or even love my present employment - I couldn't ask for a better job! But the pay is miserable.  Taking a deep breath and plunging into something new may be in the forecast after the New Year...or not.  Time will tell on that front.

So 2015 has been the year of growth.
2016 is slated to be the year of change.

We'll see what the future brings!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Interview with a Belly Dancer

I've been blogging so much about the martial arts of late that it's easy to forget that I have other hobbies.  Of course I've also not been actively participating in many of those other activities lately, so it's not really something that I bring up in conversation too much either.  Fortunately my brother, Scott hasn't forgotten. 

He's going to school for Communications and one of his class projects involved each student taking turns producing and directing a little ten minute interview-style spot that would stream live on the college's website. 

After many ideas fell through, he finally made it down the list to me.  It wasn't because he didn't think I'd be a good subject or because he didn't think I'd do it (I'm pretty sure he knew I would); it was because it was on a Tuesday (I'd have to take time off from work) and I live about three hours away.

I was more than happy to participate and was even more excited when he said the topic would be about belly dance.

The whole experience was a lot of fun and something I really enjoyed was the interview questions he had come up with.  He got them to me a day or two ahead of time so I could maul them over a little before the show.  I have to admit I was rather impressed with the questions!

Since they're not simple "yes" or "no's" though we were only able to get through three or four of the questions during the broadcast.  As I really liked the questions and I wasn't able to answer them a thoroughly as I would have liked, I asked his permission to let me answer them in a blog post.

He happily agreed!

Q: First, the easy ones: What is belly dancing? Where does it come from?
A: It's actually not as easy as one would think.
Of course the common consensus is that belly dance originated in the Middle East - especially Egypt; but I've found that any culture old enough to have a tribal or nomadic stage to its history develops some form of belly dance.
So, what is belly dance?  You see my costume (a coin bra, baggy harem pants, a long garment called a "ghawazee coat", and a coin belt) and can easily surmise, "Oh, she's a belly dancer." But I can belly dance in sweatpants and a hoodie if I wanted to.
You hear Middle Eastern music and can easily think, "That's belly dance music." But belly dancers love dancing to contemporary music as well because the audience can relate to it more easily.
The movements are very serpentine; either circular or figure-eight in nature; but other styles use similar movements.
To me belly dance is a celebratory art form.  It's not about selling sex, though it's very sensual since women are sensual.  In fact many people believe its origin was as a dance by women for women to celebrate births, weddings, coming of age, whatever.  This holds true today in that many belly dancers actually prefer to perform for other belly dancers.  These types of gatherings are called "hafla's".

Q: Of all the styles of dancing out there, what inspired you to become a belly dancer?
A: Three things really drew me to belly dance.
1) It's a solitary style of dance.
Ballroom dancing requires a partner, but belly dance can be done (and practiced) alone.  Even when belly dancers perform in a group they rarely touch each other.  Each dancer is responsible to know the choreography or to pick up the cues from the leader.  It's all on you.
2) It's a highly feminine form of dance.
This was really important to me in the beginning as I was still exploring my personal femininity (I started belly dance a little over ten years ago).  I grew up in a very masculine environment and went to school for Computer Animation, which doesn't draw a lot of females.  I was also working at a Navy training facility at the time which (understandably so) doesn't have a lot of women present.
Belly dance was one of the girliest activities I could think to do.
3) Who doesn't want to wear pretty, shiny, jingly outfits?

Q: Well and speaking of outfits: where would someone buy something like what you're wearing?
A: The chunky, colorful jewelry that belly dancers love to wear is actually in style at the moment, so I pick up a lot of pieces at department stores.
The garments themselves can be found at local and state fairs as well as Renaissance festivals; but they can also be purchased easily online from places like, TurkishEmporium, and IsisExchange (not a very PC name these days, I know; but remember that Isis is an Egyptian goddess)
For more modern/urban tastes, there's places like TheScarletLounge.
Many dancers make their own garb however.  Apart from the coin belt, I made everything I'm wearing.  Simplicity makes some superb belly dance costume patterns (as well as many other lovely patterns!)

Q: How do you train to be a belly dancer? Is your training common among other dancers?
A: Usually finding an instructor in your area is just a Google search away these days.  You can also check with your local YMCA or yoga studio (for some odd reason yogi's and belly dancers tend to all know each other).
I've studied under three different instructors and have also gone to a handful of workshops, so I can tell you the training is fairly consistent across the board.  Classes are obviously not done in full costume, though most of the time students wear a coin belt (it's just more fun if you're making noise).  Other than that, sweats or whatever you'd wear to do yoga will work for belly dance class.  Typically the teacher stands in front of the class and shows the moves they're teaching that day and everyone follows along.
Some teachers like to teach with mirrors, some don't.
Many teachers with have beginner classes, intermediate/advanced classes as well as troupe/performance classes.  You never have to commit to performing in public when signing up for a belly dance class.  Some instructors don't even have performance troupes and just teach because it's really great exercise!

Q: How big is the belly dancing community? In this state? This country?
A: In my area (the Capital Region of Upstate NY) there's quite the thriving belly dance community.  In a thirty mile radius you have access to no less than three or four teachers of varying styles.
Things may be more sparse or active as one goes through the country though; it's something I don't particularly follow too closely. 
I do know that belly dance is a big deal out in California (and the west coast in general) as that's where American Tribal Style originated. 

Q: Are there any belly dancing tournaments? Do you participate in any?
A: That's actually one I had to look up.
Belly dance isn't really a competitive sport.
There apparently are belly dance competitions, but they're few and far between.  I think they're more of a thing outside of the US.
Certainly you'll find belly dancers performing in local talent shows.  America's Got Talent usually has a couple acts come through during the audition phase; but typically local dancers host performances in their area for entertainment only.

Q: Shakira is probably the most famous belly dancer here in America; what are the general thoughts of the dancing community about her style?
A: Oy, is she really the most well known belly dancer in the States?  Not Rachel Brice or Zoe Jakes? (Some of the biggest names within the American belly dance scene)
Okay, Shakira's got some great moves, I won't lie (see what I did there? tee-hee); but she mixes hip-hop with her belly dance which easily confuses people into thinking that belly dance is far more sexual than it really is.
I assure you than spreading your legs while straddling a chair is not in the belly dance repertoire.  We actually do our best to dance with our legs together thank you very much.

Q: Do you have advice for anyone interested in becoming a belly dancer themselves?
A: Do it.
Do it!
Do it!!!
If you're in an area with several teachers, go find a teacher you like.  (Note that there's many styles too and while one style may not resonate with you, another might.  No teacher should ever get defensive if you ask what style she teaches.)
If your choices are slim or non-existent, you can actually learn a fair bit on youTube or from a DVD; but it's really not a true substitute for learning from a real person.  The posture is very important and a video won't be able to tell you that your hips aren't tucked, your knees are locked, or that your shoulders are slouching.
Belly dance is such an empowering form of feminine expression.  It's also a pretty fun and kick-ass workout.  If you're even remotely interested, I highly recommend giving it a try!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Taking the Next Step (Martial Arts-Related)

I tested for and achieved my next rank in Karate at the end of October.
It was the culmination of a lot of hard work and I feel much better about how I did on this test than the last one.
So now I'm 2nd Kyu.  In the system I'm going through, this is second degree brown belt.  I'm now two ranks away from black belt.  Woo-hoo!

Also at the end of October (the last Friday to be precise) was open sparring at our sister dojo.
Anyone of all levels is welcome to attend and though this has been going on for the last Friday of every month for as long as I've been studying Karate, I'd never attended for various reasons.

What made this one special was the Sensei at that dojo is moving away and is handing it over to another instructor.  The sparring session in October would be the last chance to spar with this incredible martial artist.  Unable to pass up such an opportunity, I made every effort to go and I had fun!

After the sparring, the instructor who'll be taking over had his usual Tai Chi class (which is every Friday).  As Tai Chi is my first martial arts love and he was a fellow classmate when I was learning all those years ago, I asked if I could stay for his class.

And so I was reminded yet again how very much I love Tai Chi.  The slower movements allow for more deliberate breathing and an easier feel of the energy flows (at least for me).  Oh it was great!

It was a smallish class: less than ten people; but they were all at different spots in the form.  This posed (an apparently long-standing) problem for the instructor because after the warm-up he had to split everyone up into groups based on what point they were at.  He'd show one group their next move, then move to the next group and the next group and so on; dividing his time between three or four groups.  If you forgot the move you were supposed to be working on (in part or in full), you'd have to wait till he came back around to your group.

Because I hadn't been in a Tai Chi class for over six years, I couldn't be terribly helpful to the group I was put with.  I remembered some of the form with little to no effort on my part, but other sections were just like they were new.

Still, this situation perked my ears.
I like Tai Chi...a lot.  I'd love to do it again, but I've already learned the short form (and the long form, and the sword form), I've just fallen out of practice.
Coming back as a student would seem silly.  It'd all come back to me in probably a month's worth of classes and that'd be all I'd need.  Though learning is a fractal process and there's always more to learn, my main focus presently is Karate.
However, seeing how he had to divide his time so much made me wonder if maybe I could be part of the solution here!

What if I came on as an assistant instructor?
I'd get my Tai Chi fix and he'd get help with the students.

It sounds rather simple and obvious, but I kid you not, this was a big mental and emotional step for me.
I've always been a student.
Yoga, belly dance, Tai Chi, whatever activity: I'm always the passive learner.

Yes, I've been an assistant instructor at Karate for well over a year now; but that's just par for the course.  As soon as a brown belt is tied around your waist, no matter your age or how long you've been studying, you're automatically tossed right in and expected to be able to run warm-ups and help the lower ranks with their katas.  Better hope you can count in Japanese by this point (most people can), and that you can break down the first kata into pieces new students can absorb!
Though you're now teaching others (and I'm don't mean to short-change this process, because you really do learn by teaching!), it's still from the passive student perspective: I've been told to do this so I am doing it.

Now I was reaching out and stepping into a more active role.
I honestly struggled with this paradigm shift for over two weeks.
Could I do it?
Could I handle the responsibility?
Was I being too arrogant in wanting to ask in the first place? (Remember I haven't touched Tai Chi in over six years!)

Finally I took the plunge and just asked.
I explained that I obviously wasn't qualified to teach the subtler nuances of the form, but with a little refresher, I'd be more than capable of showing students the correct hand and foot positions.

He was interested and willing to give it a go.
I was on cloud nine!
Holy cow! I was going to (assistant) teach!!
How freaking awesome!

And so for this past week leading up to the class last night I went through the opening moves of the form on my own; trying to dredge up what once had flowed so effortlessly and naturally.
I was happy to find after some trial and error that I could comfortably recall the first eight moves (out of 60).
I showed up last night a little early and he ran me through those eight moves, gently correctly my six years of rust and explaining how he articulates the movements verbally to students.  Then off we went!

I will admit: this first class wasn't pretty.
After warm-ups he handed me over to his newest students who are only five or six moves in.
I bumbled so much - teaching a move in the incorrect order; moving on to the next part of the form a little too quickly for them; forgetting to talk through some of the foot positions.  But the two people I was working with were so understanding and forgiving and just happy to have an instructor with them the whole time to keep repeating with them the same opening moves over and over.  And oh man did I learn so much last night!

I'm humbled, but still excited.
There's still so much to do and learn, but I have at least taken the next step in my martial arts practice and I couldn't be happier!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Being a Female in the Martial Arts (A Practical Guide)

If you count the first time I stepped foot in Tai Chi class, I've been studying martial arts for about eight or nine years.  If you want to put a finer point on it though: I studied Tai Chi for about three years.  I shifted over to Karate when I moved to Galway (NY) and studied that for about a year and a half.
Then I left Karate (and all other martial arts) for nearly three years (for various, varied reasons).  I later returned in March of last year and have been at it ever since.

So though it sounds like I've been studying a while, my practice and training has been varied with a very long break in there.  Still, I feel I've gathered some insights that might be helpful for other ladies out there interested in (but maybe a little nervous) about taking up a martial art.  Hopefully these tips and pointers and "OMG, I never thought of that!" insights will give you a clearer picture of what you're getting into.

First, let's tackle the practical stuff:

Hair, nails and jewelry

Though I will admit I've seen guys in class with longer hair than mine and males can wear jewelry just as much (if not more) than some females I've encountered, it's typically the ladies who have to deal with these three things and any or all of the three can be sticking points for some.

First, your hair: if it's long enough to be pulled back, pull it back.
I just do a low ponytail because a higher one tends to swing more and I don't like that.  Braids can unintentionally become flails and - though potentially humorous - you could hurt someone.
I've never tried wearing my hair in a bun, but I'm assuming it'd work just fine unless you're working on headlock self defenses.

Learn to be okay with your hair getting touched and/or messed up.  Some of the escapes we learn are up close and personal.  Your hair will get mangled.  If this is a problem for you, you'll have to work on it if you want to get far in the martial arts.

You'll also want to skip on the makeup when coming to class.
I assure you no one will judge your lack of lip gloss or mascara.
The dojo isn't the place to look your best.  Be prepared to look your worst actually.  It'll be worth it.

Jewelry: take it off.
All of it.  Earrings, necklaces, watches, bracelets, toe-rings, any and all piercings, etc.
I even take off my wedding ring.  Happily that is really the only thing that won't be pushed on you to remove before class, but mine is solid silver and solid gold.  It's heavy.  It could hurt someone or even me if I don't do a technique correctly.  It comes off every class.

Nails: I fought this one for a long time.
I've worn my fingernails long for most of my life.  I keep them clean and well-trimmed, and for me they're tools just as much as their pretty.  Making the decision to cut them short(er) for class was not taken lightly, but I did it.  If I ever become a midwife, they'd have to go even shorter.
I don't trim them down to the quick - they're just short enough so I don't gouge my palms when making a tight fist.  You'll have to find the right length that works for you.


For Karate we wear a gi.  It's a cotton canvas uniform that can be tugged and pulled on without easily ripping.  It also provides minimal protection when striking or being struck on the arms and legs.  It can get warm to wear and unfortunately you need to wear clothes under it for modesty purposes.
Guys can get away with being shirtless (though most wear a muscle shirt or a tee-shirt under their gi).  Ladies not only have to wear a top, but most have to wear a bra as well (my bust is small enough so it's not an issue for me) <- don't hate me
I'd highly recommend a comfy sports bra.  Obviously don't wear your every-day bra as you're going to sweat in it plus it might have an underwire (bad idea).

The nice thing though is wearing a bra can be handy for finding your hand positions!
When performing a punching technique, you have the hand doing the punch (obviously), but what does the other hand do?
Just hanging loose at your side isn't going to do you any good.
Your other hand goes up into what's called "home" or "chambered" position.  The hand is closed in a fist with the palm facing up, held tightly to your torso, ready to punch next. This position just happens to be right at the bra-line.
Like I said: handy

Another downside to the uniforms is they're typically white.
In our system, students wear all white until they reach brown belt - then they can wear different colored pants (black is the typical color of choice, but you can wear pink camo if that's your thing).  Black belts can wear any color gi they like.

That bad thing about white is that it's not a terribly opaque color.
As some ladies like to wear pretty underwear (especially teens and young girls), you can easily reveal to the whole class your color/pattern pick of the day.

The solution: I wore white athletic shorts under my gi when I was still wearing all white.  It provided extra modesty coverage so I didn't have to plan my choice of undergarments too carefully.
Now that I wear black pants, it's no longer an issue.  Win!

White of course poses other potential problems for women, which brings me to my next point:

That time of the month

Yes, I'm totally going there because it's a real and legitimate issue.
There's some girls (especially the younger teenagers) who won't even come to class when they're on their period.  I'm bummed about this but I get it.
You've got the cramps, the bloating, the fatigue, the fuzzy brain and the off chance of leaking red fluid all over your clothes if you move wrong (so that white gi becomes a terrifying hazard).

If you don't wear tampons or a cup, things can get trickier.
Try a nighttime pad right before heading out to class.  Make sure you're good and clean too.
If you're a heavy bleeder take it easy, but I still hope you make it to class.

The exercise will ease the cramps (trust me it will!).
The exercise will also help with the fatigue.  It might take a little longer than usual to get into the swing of things, but it really will help.


Though no one deliberately tries to hurt anyone else in a martial arts class, given the nature of the activity, you will acquire a bruise here and there.  Fortunately it's not so much of an issue in the beginning.  I don't recall getting them too frequently till I was a brown belt, so this is one you can ease into gently.

Some styles are a little rougher than others.  Because Karate makes use of hard blocks (exerting perpendicular force to stop/deflect a strike or kick), the typical bruise locations are the forearms, knees and shins.

The nice thing is as you learn to put more and more power behind your techniques, you also learn how to control that power.  I'm happy to report that I've been popped in the face several times while sparring, but have not yet gotten a black eye or a fat lip.  In fact sparring injuries are rare - at least in the school I attend because we usually pair up high ranking students (who know how to block and throw a punch without killing someone) with lower ranked ones (who are learning all that).

If you bruise easily you may end up with bruises on your wrists and redness around the neck from some of the escapes we do.  Always let your instructor and training partner know such things so they can compensate accordingly.

I heard a story of a woman who worked her way up through the ranks and got really close to black belt, but her husband asked her to stop because he didn't like that she was always covered in bruises.  Sadly, she dropped out.

Personally, I wear my bruises with pride.  They're a sign of a good class.  They're a sign that I'm tough, that I can take a hit, that I'm becoming physically stronger every day.
I love my bruises!

Other thoughts

Though I don't have the hugest amount of experience in the martial arts, there's a couple differences I've so far noticed between how men and women handle things in class:

1) An injury is far more likely to permanently sideline a woman than a man.
Maybe because guys have been told from a young age to "Suck it up!" "Shake it off!" "Don't be a pussy!"
While women are taught that they're delicate and in need of protecting and saving.

One woman who was coming to class with her husband and children dropped out because she had tweaked her elbow at one point (I don't think it was a class-related injury) and she chose not to return even after the elbow healed.
On the other hand, a young man in class shattered his wrist at work, had surgery on it and will continue healing for a good long time.  Though he's careful, he returned to class as soon as his doctors cleared him.

It's just how things go I guess.

2) Women tend to be more willing and able to admit when they're hurt and that they need to stop.
I badly jammed my toes one day while sparring.  Nothing was broken but it hurt like the dickens.
I bowed off the mat in the middle of the round - I had no desire to stick it out till the round was over.  I hobbled over to my gear bag, grabbed the little ACE bandage I keep there for such occasions and wrapped my foot.
All of this took no more than a few minutes and I was soon back to sparring again; but I took the time to care for myself before continuing.  I think that's something a female would be far more inclined to do than a male.

3) The lack of a strong female presence in the martial arts can be daunting.
I'm often the only adult female in class and girls rarely stick with it far into their teen years.
If they do stay all the way through high school, they often leave for college (as the boys do too), but unlike the boys they rarely return afterwards.

The demands of work, marriage and parenthood seem to keep adult women away more than men.  The prevailing notion that martial arts is more a "guy thing" seems to work against female participation even though in some ways women have a greater advantage.  Their lower center of gravity and natural quickness and agility often make them formidable martial artists.

I can tell from personal experience though that just knowing other women martial artists are out there is so empowering and encouraging.  Finding The Martial Arts Woman blog has been a wonderful morale boost for me.

And my final thoughts on and for female martial artists:

It will change you.

Your body will tone up.  Your flexibility will increase.  Your stamina and endurance will improve.
Those are all great, but you can get that from yoga or a spinning class at your local Y.

It will change your mindset too.
You will become more confident, more empowered, more self-assured.

Oddly enough this change can be frightening.
I do believe it was one of the many plethora of things that drove me away from Karate the first time.  There's an inner self-confidence and responsibility you need to accept to advance in the martial arts.  That shift may be too subtle to notice for some, but when one has a meek and submissive temperament as I do, it can be a difficult challenge to incorporate.

I'm endlessly glad I did.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Face-to-Face with Rape Culture

I was down in New York City this weekend with a small groups of friends.  Since I have family in the City, I've been there several times; for one of the girls attending though, this was her first trip.  I'm happy to report we all had a blast overall.  There was glorious shopping, good food and a general enjoyment of the architecture and mass trasit of New York.

One incident however did cast a shadow over our merry little adventure.  It happened in the subway after we'd swiped through the turnstiles to get to the train platform.  A girl on the other side was accosted by a rather inebriated stranger who was making leering comments at her and standing way too close for anyone's comfort.

Since there was no one else in the vestibule apart from them and us, we lingered; not really sure what to do or say.  She was clearly uncomfortable by his advances, but she stoically ignored him while she fumbled frantically for her Metro Card.  After what felt like forever, she finally found her card and swiped through.

We quickly clustered protectively around her as we all walked to the platform and asked if she was okay.  She was clearly shaken by the incident, but she mumbled "Yes," and quietly tied her jacket around her waist to cover the tight, short skirt she was wearing which had (presumably) "provoked" the whole incident. (Fortunately the drunk dude didn't follow her through the turnstile and he had never touched her.)

As we moved on and got on our train I remember feeling anger towards the girl for bringing it onto herself.  She was clearly a tourist like ourselves but being young and pretty as she was, surely she should have known better than to dress so provocatively to a place like NYC!

These feelings were later followed by being appalled at my own thoughts.

"My God! I'm part of the freaking problem!"
Blaming her for being harassed is exactly the reason why victims of sexual assault don't report incidents and why they end up being shamed by the very same system that's supposed to protect them.  (I'm being gender neutral on this point as I know men can equally be harassed and that's a whole other post.)

I honestly don't know what we could have done different in the situation.  Certainly if he had touched her, all of us would have jumped back over the turnstile to her defense; but verbal abuse is more nebulous and harder to deal with.  Had we spoken up, asking him to leave her alone, it would have drawn his attention on us.  Maybe that would have been better - giving her a chance to escape; but we didn't know he wasn't going to just come on through the turnstile at us either or get violent.  We also didn't know it'd take her so long to get her pass.  In all honesty the whole thing didn't last more than 90 seconds, but it was plenty long enough.

It was an utterly miserable situation, certainly more so for her than us.

I suppose I should cap this with some flowery advice on how we can all change the world for the better.  Frankly I've got nothing here except to say that as bad as that situation was, things are getting better.
Think about it: we were three young, fairly attractive females traveling without a male escort.  That would have been absurdly unsafe in the past.

Think about the workplace: male bosses no longer ask female employees to get them coffee without a second thought.  That's changed since just my mother's generation (I know because it happened to her).

Women can get loans and own property by themselves without raising eyebrows (also something that's changed within just the past 50 or so years).
Men can raise children as a single parent without people looking on with pity at the poor, motherless kids.

Martial rape is now a crime (though it took till 1993 for that to be the case in all 50 states).

Things have improved, are continuing to improve, but there's still the wage gap.  There's still a glass ceiling in some fields.  Women are still casually harassed on the street.
The answer isn't to change how women dress or if we should or shouldn't make eye contact with strangers.  The answer is knowledge, spreading the word as to what is and isn't correct and appropriate behavior; teaching men not to rape instead of instructing females how to not get raped.

Every day, every year the idea that a woman must be "owned" or "controlled" wanes and becomes more quaint.  Incidents like what we witnessed this weekend will become more the exception rather than the rule.  With how quickly things are changing I'm certain this will happen within my lifetime and it warms my heart to think my nieces will be able to wander the streets of a major city, wide-eyed and innocent and never once have to think, "Will that man over there harm me?"

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Hurry Up and Wait (Karate-related)

Almost ever since I got my 3rd Degree Brown Belt (3rd Kyu) last May I've been gunning for getting my 2nd Kyu this May.  I've been working really hard all school year and have grown by leaps and bounds.  I've had minor epiphanies where things have finally clicked into place and several "Ah-ha!" moments.  It's been great!

However I feel it's taken 5/8 of the school year to get up to the skill level I should be at for my current rank.  Logically that's only allowed for 3/8 of the year to continue to move forward into the skill level required for the next rank.

It means that if I tested next month (and there was never a huge amount of resistance from the instructors save one), I feel I'd pass...but just barely.  And since I don't want to squeak by on tests anymore, it means I'm not ready to test yet.

Since formal classes end when the school year does, my next opportunity to test again won't be until October. 

For some people that six month gap would be demoralizing after working so hard for a specific goal.  For me though it's a huge relief.  It means I have six more months to tighten up my self-defenses (some of which I've only done in class once or twice), improve my kicks (maybe even finally manage to pull off a serviceable flying side kick), and discover even more subtle nuances in our hand-to-hand defenses (which we call "one steps").

I'll have more time to develop and perfect the hand and foot combos I need to come up with for my test (which I actually haven't even been able to put any time into yet). 

My katas - which are by far my strongest section - will only get better.

Though I feel far more confident about being test-worthy by October than I ever did for May, a lot can happen between now and then (namely involving my father-in-law).  Still I plan on continuing to work hard, throwing as much time and effort into this as I can. 

As I've said before, the reasons why I push myself so hard are a little nebulous, even to me.  What I do know though is Karate is a very fun activity for me.  I enjoy pushing the physical limits of my body.  I acknowledge that Karate probably isn't the ideal martial art for me personally (my temperament and build are better suited for a Chinese style like Tai Chi or Wing Chun Kung Fu); yet I love it, probably because I have to work hard at it.

So here's to hoping for a productive summer and a solid test just in time for my birthday!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Death Doula

It's often said that those who work in the birthing field usually wander over to end-of-life care and/or hospice work at some point. 

I found that rather odd at first until I stepped into that role myself.

My work as an in-home caregiver to an elderly quadriplegic gentleman opened my eyes to the fact that the dying need just as much compassionate care and support as women in labor do.  Both are dealing with incredibly powerful transitions that can make one feel terribly and desperately alone.  Just having another person present at such a time who isn't directly involved in the situation can help immensely, even if all they're doing is sitting there offering the laboring woman or the dying person their undivided attention.

This is the role I've been taking lately with my ailing father-in-law (Dick).

Dick has been dealing with prostate cancer for a few years now and it's finally looking like the end is near.  He's maintained his independence and mobility right up to about a month ago.

From that point on I've taken a much more active role in his care, from helping him get into and out of bed, to assisting him with his medical care and hygiene, to things as simple as offering various foods that may entice his waning appetite.

I'm not a trained nurse, but with the caregiver background I've been able to handle his care with far more knowledge than the average person; allowing him to stay at home far longer than normal circumstances would have permitted.  It's also enabled me to remain calm through the minor emergencies that had cropped up while he was home; this I feel has been incredibly important to his overall well being.

Just an honest smile; undivided attention and lack of pity, fear or disgust goes a long way.

He needed to transfer to the hospital two weeks ago and he moved up to the hospice ward late last week.  Since his move out of the house, I've made it a point to visit every few days, bringing him his mail, chatting with him and reading books of a spiritual nature aloud to him.

It's not my job to make medical decisions for him or try to persuade or dissuade any choices on his part.  My role has been purely emotional support, to be an anchor of calm normalcy in a tumultuous sea of unknown.

It's been an absolute honor to perform this function for him; to assure him he's not going to die alone.  To me, this is the greatest gift I can give him.

I've had the opportunity of being a birth doula four times and each experience has been wonderful!  Universe willing, I hope to attend more births in the future.  However I'm finding that being a "death doula" can be just as empowering and satisfying as well.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

By the Scruff of the Neck (Part 4)

Here's the last installment of a weekly series I've done this month going into how I've applied three simple principles to stressful situations to make them less aggravating/scary/earth-shattering and more empowering/educational/eye-opening.

Here's Parts 1, 2 & 3

And here's the final (and least insane) story from my life:

Event: Minor Car Accident
Age at the time: 35

This one happened at the beginning of this month.  I was driving home with my husband, Rick from a weekend visiting family.  It had been snowing all day and we'd gotten a late start.  The roads were terrible.

Though I'd been taking it slow and driving carefully (following the guidelines I laid out in this post), I came up to a person who was straddling both lanes and driving painfully slow.  After being stuck behind him for a few miles, I got sick of the pace he was setting.  I waited for him to wander slightly farther to the right and then, throwing caution to the wind, sped up to pass him.

Of course I hit the slush, started fishtailing, couldn't pull out of it, started spinning and ended up in a snowbank facing the opposite direction.  The car was thoroughly stuck and tipped at an angle so the gas gauge immediately sunk down to empty. I quickly shut the car off while Rick got on his phone to call AAA for a tow.

1) Don't play the victim
It would have been so satisfying to blame the driver who chose to drive smack in the middle of the road, but no one had forced me to try passing him.  I could have tried going around him a little slower too, but I wasn't sure if he'd drift back to the left - I had just wanted to get away from him.

It didn't matter the reasons, I was the one stuck in the snow bank.  I was the one who needed to deal with that.

2) Keep calm and vigilant
Oddly enough neither Rick nor I freaked out.  We were both safe.  None of the airbags had gone off; and we had somehow managed to not hit another vehicle while careening in circles on the highway. Other than the initial worry there was a puncture in the gas tank, the car appeared relatively unscathed.

3) Do what you can and then let go
A state police cruiser arrived within minutes - Rick was just finishing up with AAA.  After assessing the situation, the officers asked if we wanted to wait in their car.  In hindsight it seems strange that we declined, but we assumed the tow truck would be there in a jiffy.

An hour later, we were pretty chilly and were thrilled when the tow truck finally arrived to pull the car out.  We did wait in the cruiser for that part.

The tow operator was a surgeon with his pulley and had the car out of the snowbank in no time at all.  We all gave the car a quick look-over.  Now that the car was righted, the gas gauge returned to it's normal reading - no signs of a leak.  A headlight had blown from impact, but the casing wasn't even cracked.  A couple undercarriage covers had been knocked loose, but there was nothing to indicate the car wouldn't be able to get us home under its own power.

Just to be sure, the tow truck driver asked us to follow him up to a gas station at the next exit.  This seemed like a good plan, so we thanked the police officers, knocked as much snow out of the wheel wells as we could, and followed the tow truck to that gas station.

There was a wobble in the tires, which I couldn't figure out if it was a balance issue or just lingering snow we hadn't cleared out, but other than that the car handled great.

We gave our report to the tow driver and had an uneventful remainder of the trip home.

I actually had an appointment to get an oil change and the horn fixed on my car that Wednesday, so I simply tacked a few more things onto that visit.
Turned out that wobble was just snow - which melted in the garage.
The mechanic changed out the blow headlight bulb, reattached the undercarriage covers, changed the oil, and fixed the horn.  The car even passed inspection!

Not exactly a "fun" experience, but it could have been a lot worse that's for sure!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

By the Scruff of the Neck (Part 3)

The third installments of this month's series of how applying three simple principles can help one overcome trying situations isn't nearly as earth-shattering as the two previous posts, but it was stressful none-the-less.

Event: Finding a new wedding venue six months before the wedding
Age at the Time: 34

In one's day-to-day life six months is often some impossibly future date that rarely needs much consideration.  In the wedding world though, six months is practically tomorrow and needing to change one's venue "that close" to go-time can pose many challenges.

Rick (my now-husband) and I had wanted to get married at an Ashram that his father had helped found 50 years prior.  It simply made sense since we were planning a Hindu-style ceremony.  There would have been a lot of restrictions imposed (very limited alcohol, limited occupancy of the space, etc.) but we were willing to work with all that.

As planning progressed though, the relationship with the planning board grew increasingly cold and rigid.  They were becoming inexplicably less willing to work with us, imposing more fees, never quite getting a written contract together, demanding numbers of guests who'd be staying the night on-site (even though formal invitations weren't being sent out for another few months) and over-all growing less and less welcoming of the idea of hosting our wedding on their grounds even though there's a wedding there at least once or twice a year.

After a very frustrating meeting with the coordinator they had assigned to us (whom we'd never met before or since despite her assurances that she was well acquainted with the planning board, many of whom we know personally), we finally cut ties and chose to look for another place to hold our wedding.

1) Don't play the victim
No hard feelings, we still love the Ashram and still visit as frequently as we're able.
Would I have preferred they just tell us straight up from the beginning that they didn't want to host our wedding? Yes. We would have thanked them and moved on, saving us a fair amount of headache of finding a new place and informing all our guests that they'd be traveling elsewhere for the big day.

(In case you're curious, the issue apparently came down to money.  They weren't comfortable charging us the amount they would have needed to compensate for not being able to rent the space for some other more profitable event)

2) Keep calm and vigilant
Where was this fabled "elsewhere" going to be though?
The possibilities were overwhelming even within our limited price range and criteria of:
~Preferred outdoor ceremony
~Reception on-site
~Electricity and means of cooking food
~Parking and restrooms to accommodate our 100+ guestlist

Obviously it needed to be in easy driving distance for Rick & I.
Bonus if it was easy driving distance for the rest of our guests and close to an airport or two.

The biggest stipulation I put on finding a new location was that I didn't want to change the date of October 4th.  We had already sent out the save-the-date cards and I didn't want to confuse people by giving them a new location and day to show up.  I liked our date, and I wanted a fall wedding without getting too close to Halloween.
I decided I'd use the date to help narrow down our options.

3) Do what you can and then let go 
There were a lot of late nights on the phone with my planner friend, surfing the web, looking at state parks, Elks Lodges, historical sites and the like.

Nothing really felt right though.

Driving to work one morning I was suddenly struck by the idea that we could do the wedding at Howe Caverns.  It'd be perfect: being a tourist location, they're well-equipped for large quantities of people.  They're located right off a major highway that most of our guests were well-familiar with.  They have on-site food service, lodging and they are used to hosting weddings.

I called them up and asked if our date was available.
It was!

The price also ended up being right within our budget.
We had a new wedding venue!

Though a little slow to start, Howe was wonderful to work with.
Not only were they happy to work with us, they seemed eager to.  I think having an unusual wedding ceremony in a "safe" place like Howe Caverns helped put our guests at ease as well.  Many of the local folks had been to Howe in their childhood and had fond memories of the place.
Having it at the Ashram would have been an added level of "unknown" that likely would have made people uncomfortable and less able to have fun.

Our wedding was lovely, the food at the reception was great and everyone had a good time.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

By the Scruff of the Neck (Part 2)

This post is a continuation of a series started last week about how I've applied three simple principles to help deal with stressful situations that have cropped up throughout the years.

I feel these principles can be used no matter what life throws at you.

1) Don't play the victim
2) Keep calm and vigilant
3) Do what you can and then let go

Event: Quitting job a month after buying a house
Age at the time: 29

A year after graduating college I got a job with Lockheed Martin working in a graphics groups that made training material for the Navy.  Though the environment wasn't what I'd call ideal (more on that later) I loved the work and the pay was great.

About six years into this gig I decided maybe it was time to start house-hunting.  In November of 2008 I finally closed on my first house.  A month later I unexpectedly quit my job with Lockheed.

I suppose my leaving wasn't terribly unexpected, just untimely.  True, the work site with its chain link fences topped with razor wire patrolled by guards with guns wasn't really my bag.  I also was never a huge fan of working for one of the largest defense contractors in the country (I'm just too much of a hippie I guess), but I could have lived with that.  Being a subcontractor was endlessly frustrating, as was the semi-annual corporate training to remind all employees not to sell secrets to foreign governments or sexually harass co-workers.  All this was wearing but tolerable.

The straw that broke the camel's back was a new supervisor who wanted to make this little graphics group all his own.  He micromanaged and made sweeping changes and decrees that seriously rubbed me the wrong way.  At my December performance review he stated that my work performance was great but my attitude was bordering on insubordination.

We'd been having rows for weeks now and I was through.  I told him firmly that he could have my letter of resignation on his desk the next morning.

"Why not now?" he asked.

So I typed it up right there with hot tears of rage streaming down my face.

1) Don't play the victim
It was so easy to blame the supervisor but really he was just the nudge I needed to get myself moving.
When I first took the job I had misgivings for all the reasons I stated above, but I made a promise to myself that I'd only work there for as long as it took to pay my debts off.

In the late summer/early fall of 2008 I completely debt-free.
In six and a half years I had paid off my car and my student loans.  I had racked up a fair amount of credit card debt, but thanks to the gentle financial tutoring of my future husband, I'd completely paid that off as well.
I gotten braces, and paid them off and had even managed to do a fair amount of travel simply by saving money rather than putting it on credit.

I had fulfilled my promise and the universe was simply reminding me of that.
However, I now had a house to "feed and care for".

2) Keep calm and vigilant
Though there was a certain amount of worry over being an unemployed new home-owner, nothing about searching for or buying a house had sent up caution flags for me.  Neither did leaving my really well-paying job.  I took this all to mean that it was simply meant to be and all I had to do was watch it all unfold - while doing my part of course.

I needed a new job and I needed it fast!

3) Do what you can and then let go
I hadn't job-hunted in seven years and even then it was under unusual circumstances, so I had only the vaguest understanding as to how to go about it.  I did what any person with a 20th century mindset would do: I hit the phone book.

Two or three days a week I'd get up at eight or nine in the morning, eat breakfast and then sit in front of my computer with an open phone book.  Each day had a theme: one day would be calling advertising firms, another would be TV stations (for their graphics or video editing department).  One day would be caregiver and unskilled hospital jobs, another day would be temp agencies.  I'm trainable in just about any field of work and can squeeze enjoyment out of nearly any task, so picking themes wasn't overly difficult.  I of course would prefer something just challenging enough to be fun, preferably somewhere near my field of training, but I'm never picky when it comes to work.

I'd go through a list in the phone book and if a company looked promising (was in driving distance for instance), I'd look up their website.  If it tickled my fancy further I'd give them a call to see if they were looking for people.  I'd make these cold calls until about noon when I'd break for lunch.

Sometimes I'd hit the phones again until two or three, but usually that about all the energy I had for cold-calling.  I honestly knew no other way to look for work - it never occurred to me to use job-search websites.

I was unemployed for only six weeks (but it felt a fair bit longer!)
On a whim I called a sign company one day and scored an interview which led to a job.
It was a major pay-cut but I needed the work.  It was a small sibling-run business and was just what I needed at that point in my life.  Though I was only with them for three and a half years, my time there opened the doors to many other opportunities one wouldn't have expected.

I'm endlessly grateful for my time there and with Lockheed.  They both served their purposes and they served them well.  I learned a lot and am still living in that house I bought.

Post Script: that supervisor who'd given me so much trouble left that division of Lockheed a month after I left the company.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

By the Scruff of the Neck (Part 1)

A long time ago I once mused sadly in conversation that the universe had never picked me up by the scruff of the neck and given me a good shake.  What I meant was I felt that nothing terribly bad had ever happened to me to test my mettle and ability to cope with unusually stressful situations.

"What are you talking about?" my future husband (Rick) asked surprised.  "What about the time you were almost homeless?"

Really? That silly little "incident"?

He pointed out that because of how I had handled that situation I never perceived it as something terrible.  Instead it was a rather empowering and door- and eye-opening experience.  Not one that I'd wish on others of course, but one of those character-building events that can change the course of one's life.

There's been other "scruff of the neck" instances in my life that I would like to share with you throughout this month.  My purpose in recounting these tales is not to brag about how "awesomely I overcame adversity", but rather how I applied three very simple principles that turned potentially catastrophic situations into positive opportunities for growth.

These principles are:

1) Don't play the victim
2) Keep calm and vigilant
3) Do what you can and then let go

With those three ideas in mind, here's the first "Scruff of the Neck" occasion:

Event: Almost Homeless in Pittsburgh
Age at the time: 19

I'd been going to college at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for a year by this point and enjoying every minute of it.  I was living in the school-sponsored housing on the North Side and walked to and from the city every day for school and my part-time job.  My financial aid only covered the first year of housing and I couldn't afford to stay for the second year (I was in a two-year program).

No worries.  I had managed to hook up with a group of 1st quarter students who were going to rent a house.  I put in my share of the security deposit and had even gone to look at the house.  Everything was looking good.

Right before the quarter ended however the students disappeared.  No one returned messages and I never saw the security deposit again.  The school was no help and my parents, though certainly not indifferent, couldn't do anything being hundreds of miles away.  When the quarter started back up in two weeks I would officially have no place to live.

1) Don't play the victim
I certainly could have wailed and moaned, "Oh woe is me!  I've been robbed and have no place to go!"  But I didn't.  Was I annoyed? Yes.  Frustrated? Sure.  Victimized. No.

2) Keep calm and vigilant
Instead I approached the whole thing with a calm detachment.
In my naive little mind I had no viable reason to be in college in the first place.  I was miraculously doing this all on my own with scholarships, grants, loans and the tax money Mom and Dad were getting back for me attending school: my parents couldn't afford to help me out any other way financially.  We were poor.
The last person in my immediate family to go to college was a great-grandmother who had passed away a few years before.  And yet here I was.

The way I saw it I was going to school purely on God's grace and there was no freaking way I'd have to drop out because of something silly like not having a place to live.

I had complete faith that if I didn't spaz out then something would turn up.

That didn't mean I could just sit back and wait for all the cogs to align for me; I knew I had to do my share of the leg work.  I'd have to keep my eyes open and do what I could to find a place to live.

3) Do what you can and then let go
My roommate at the school-sponsored housing offered to let me "hide" at the apartment until I found a place.  Touching, but the place would get cramped pretty quick with a new roomie arriving with all her things as well.

This may sound appalling (and maybe a bit terrifying), but I was honestly eying a hole under the 7th Street Bridge.  It was well above the river, looked easy enough to get into and was sheltered from the weather.  I was even making mental plans on how I'd keep my clothes clean (in large garbage bags that I'd be able to snag from work), and how I'd keep myself clean (spit baths in the bathrooms at school and the occasional shower at my old place).

I found this whole plan oddly exciting and would have had no qualms with following it through.  Of course it never once occurred to me at the time that someone may actually already be living in that hole or how I'd keep my stuff secure during the day while I was at work and school (the blinders of youth are a blessing sometimes).

Resolution: I had been getting rides back to my parents' house in between quarters with Rick, who was also attending AIP (this is how we'd met initially as our parents lived near each other).  He knew of my situation and said he had a friend whose parents would likely let me stay with them until I found a place more permanent.

Sounded much better than the bridge actually.

So when it was time to return to school Rick drove me out to their place and I met the family.  They'd just had a bad experience with a roommate and weren't eager for a new one, but I was so wide-eyed, meek and courteous that they decided to let me stay for a month or two.

That "month or two" stretch out to the remainder of my time in college.
They even moved into a bigger place to accommodate me.
I helped with the dishes, cleaning and walking the dogs in lieu of paying rent.  I served as a crying shoulder and a friend.

No, it wasn't always happy rainbows and sparklie unicorns, but it was a safe place to live while finishing off my degree.  And an experience I would never have had otherwise.

Call it "luck", call it "grace", I call it being willing and open to see opportunities.

Stay tuned for another fun story next week.

Monday, February 2, 2015

A Girl's Guide to Winter Driving

So we got a major snowfall here in upstate NY today (hey, it's winter; that sort of thing happens around here), and people freaked out and were all over the place in ditches, or they called in to work saying they couldn't make it out of their driveway.  Okay I will admit the roads were bad, but not that bad.

I drove to work and back today without incident.  It took 40 minutes as opposed to the typical 25 (it's about 19 miles from home to work).  My commute takes me over a series of back roads, main roads as well as urban side streets.  There's various intersections with stop signs, traffic lights or none of the above.  My drive takes me through three counties, all of which have various priorities on how they maintain their roads.  And I did just fine.

Before you think to yourself, "Oh, well she's got to have a four-wheel drive vehicle!" let me just shut that down right now.  I drive a 2000 Toyota Corolla.  It's front-wheel drive with automatic transmission, a four-cylinder engine and no anti-lock breaks.  I've been driving it for thirteen years.

Now it is true I wasn't always a great winter driver, in fact I had quite the track record of sending the car into a 180 degree spin at least once a year (thank heavens no one was ever hurt in any of those incidences including the car!).  A couple years ago though I decided to put a stop to that dangerous "habit" on the assumption that my luck would run out some day and something very bad would happen eventually.  Since then I've (if I do say so myself) become quite a good driver on bad roads and I'd like to share with you my simple and easy-to-implement tips for how to drive in the winter.

1) Take it slow
I really wish I didn't have to include this, but I apparently have to.  I've heard too many stories of people who wound up in the ditch and when recounting their story later it was obvious they were going way too fast for the conditions.  Look people the speed limit on any given road is only applicable under optimal driving condistions.  Snow falling from the sky at an inch per hour does not constitute "optimal driving conditions" under any stretch of the imagination.

Do not drive at the speed you want to, expect to, or usually do.  Drive only as fast as you can safely stop quickly if you needed to, or to regain control of the vehicle if you start to slide (more on that in the next point).

But on the other side, don't drive ten miles an hour either when your car is perfectly capable of going 30.  You'll piss off the other drivers stacking up behind you and risk being the focal point of an accident when they irately try passing you.  I understand pulling onto the shoulder to let people by can be impractical when the roads are bad, but you've got to make a fair compromise here for the safety and sanity of your fellow travelers.

2) Expect to slide around
When I first moved out to the country I was paranoid about hitting a deer.  To me it simply seemed inevitable: there are deer out in the woods, one will get hit some day.
I knew I had to change my mindset otherwise I would be guaranteeing that I'd whack a wandering ruminant some day (you know, the whole "what you resist persists" mentality); so I had to change my thinking to avoid this outcome.

What I changed it to was "It's guaranteed I'll see deer.  I certainly don't need to ever have to hit one though".  And it works.  Now whenever I see white-tails grazing alongside the road I'm not terrified that one will inevitably leap out in front of me.  I slow down and gauge whether they're interested in seeing what the chicken thought was so great about the other side of the road.

The same holds true for slipping and sliding on slick roads.  Separate the notion that a slide will equal a crash.  It doesn't have to.  The car will slide.  That's okay.  Don't freak out.  If you're going slow enough (see above), all you should have to do is take your foot off the gas and let the tires find traction again.  You might have to down-shift (see next point), but you won't freak out because you know you don't have to soar into a tailspin or wind up in the ditch.

3) Learn how to down-shift
Most cars are automatic these days and the average person doesn't even know how to drive a standard transmission vehicle.  Those who do still drive standards though swear by them because they do better in the snow.

Why? you might ask.
Because people who drive standard know how to use their gear shifter to maximize traction and you can too! (Yes, even with an automatic).

Most people put their car in Drive or O/D (Overdrive; can also be denoted by a "D" with a circle around it) and never touch the gear shifter again until they reach their destination or need to parallel park; but there's a whole bunch of other gears available on the automation transmission gear shifter that you're missing out on!

There's the option to get out of Overdrive for instance; on my car it's a button on the side of the gear shifter, but on others it's a separate gear.  This is a slightly lower gear than what you want for cruising speed as it's not as fuel efficient, but it gives you better traction.

The "2" and "1" are the equivalent to the standard gears.  1st gear is for starting from a dead stop.  You've got a lot of torque in this gear, but you can only go about 10 to maybe 15 miles an hour before the engines winds up too high (you'll hear it, believe me).  2nd though is a great gear if you can't go faster than 30 miles an hour.  This is also an excellent gear to drop down to if you're starting to slide to help the tires grip the road again.  Don't stay in 2nd gear though if you can go much faster than 30 as (again) you'll hear the engine wind up and it's not good for either the engine or your fuel economy.

The general rule of thumb I follow:
If I can't drive faster than 45 miles per hour - take off the Overdrive
30 mph or less = use 2nd gear

I rarely use 1st, mostly because my car doesn't drop into it easily anymore, but it's good if you just need a good hard push from the engine to get going from a stop.

4) Get the freaking snow tires
I used to only drive on all-seasons all year round, feeling it was stupid to spend the money on two whole sets of tires that you have to change out every six months.
I can now attest though that the cost of switching them out (and potentially storing them) is well worth the cost.

You can go studded if you like, but I personally don't; feeling that traction is lost on dry roads.  To each their own though, go with what makes you more comfortable.

Snow tires don't make you invincible though; you still need to adher to safe and sane driving practices.  What they do give you though is much better traction in snowy/slushy conditions (and yes, studs will help you on ice).  Climbing hills when the roads are greasy is significantly easier with snow tires as well.

If you can afford a whole second set of rims (called "wheels" these days I guess), all the better.  Changing out your warm-weather tires with your snows as the seasons change though does not damage the rims, so don't worry about that (if you were).

So there's my advice for winter driving and it works very well for me.
How about you?
Any tips/tricks you've picked up through the years that's improved your winter driving?  Share your thoughts.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Sun-Moon Dance

If I said I were going to a football game later this year (I'm not btw), a firm image would come to mind even if you've never been to a live game or even if you aren't much of a fan.  There's a stadium with thousands of spectators/fans.  There's two teams wearing bright colors, and referees with whistles.  A brown, oblong-shaped ball will be kicked and thrown around for a couple hours.  You don't really need to actively think all this, it's just part of our culture.

If I said I'd be participating in a Sun-Moon Dance later this year, with a few exceptions I'm going to bet your mind will come up with nothing.  It's not part of the cultural language.  Yet this will be my fourth (nonconsecutive) year participating in one and I'd like to tell you what a Sun-Moon Dance is and why it's important to me.

First off you get a cookie if the idea of a Native American Sun Dance came to mind.  You're on the right track!  A Sun-Moon Dance is a similar concept except there's no hooks or cutting, it's open to women, and it's open to all races.  It's also not a traditional Native American ritual though it was first conceived by a modern Native American mystic named Joseph Beautiful Painted Arrow.

Feel free to check out the links throughout this post if you're interested to explore further but I did find this very lovely description of a Sun-Moon Dance and I wanted to quote the whole thing here because it does give a wonderful description of what a Sun-Moon Dance is:

"The Sun-Moon Dance was brought forth from the vision of a Native American, Joseph Rael- Beautiful Painted Arrow. Joseph is a visionary and mystic of Southern Ute and Picaris Pueblo heritage. It is important to understand that it is not a Native American Dance.

The Sun Moon dance is open to all people who seek the inspiration to live a life of greater spiritual awareness and who are willing to invest the effort. It provides the special condition necessary for a direct experience of Spirit and of spiritual realms.

The four days of the dance bring many teachings. The form of the dance itself is a metaphor for prayer. Sacred dancing teaches us about the power of putting all aspects of ourselves into our prayers – physically, mentally and emotionally. The fasting observed in the dance brings us mental clarity, appreciation for food and clean water, and teaches us how strong we really are. Movement teaches us about the importance of dancing for a vision, and then dancing the vision so that it may be embodied and realized. It also teaches us that manifesting what we truly desire requires commitment, effort and surrender.

On a personal level, Dancers experience personal breakthrough and transformation, deep insights and visions, and a spiritual acceleration that lasts throughout the year. The commitment to dance a full cycle of four dances is important as it brings about healing on mental, emotional, physical and spiritual levels. Since each of us is a microcosm of the planet, the healing we bring to ourselves also brings healing to the earth. For these reasons alone, the dance is a powerful gift that you give to yourself and to those you love.

On a planetary level, the dance works with the energy and spirits of the land. The dance arbor is the sacred Medicine Wheel, and represents the world and the life it contains and nurtures. In the dance, we work to bring in the directional energies of the east, south, west, north, up above, and down below. The web of energy created by the dancers transfers into the land, and permeates the world to bring healing. The dance and the drum release new spiritual energy from deep within the earth to be used for peace.

Those who are called to it come to make important changes in their personal lives, as well as to assist in the grand work of planetary healing and the promotion of global peace."

I Dance at The House of Mica Peace Chamber near Albany, NY.  They conduct their Sun-Moon Dance in July or August of each year.  You can read about the Dance on their land here.

Okay, so that's the overview, let's hit on some of the details.


I'm not exaggerating in saying the Sun-Moon Dance is an intense, life-altering experience.  It's not something a person should enter into lightly.  Though some people have been known to decide to participate within a day or two of the Dance, the sooner one makes the decision to participate the better. Some people need to scale back on caffeine and/or nicotine beforehand.  Others need to make sure they're healthy enough for the physical aspect of it.  Some people need mental prep time.

Apart from all that, Dancers are asked to make a certain number of prayer ties before the Dance.  This can number in the hundreds some years.  You don't have to make them if you really don't want to, but the time set aside to do them does help get one in the mindset of gratitude and connection with Spirit.

The prayer ties are hung over your sleeping area during the Dance as a constant reminder of the hopes and prayers you consciously created for the event.  At the end of the Dance, the prayer ties are burned, releasing the prayers to Divinity.

Time Frame

The Dance is described as taking place over the course of four days.  This is true, though I prefer to think of it as closer to two and a half days.  Things get started on Friday morning.  In no particular order (mostly because I don't particularly remember the exact order) there's a sweat lodge for all Dancers and Helpers.  If a new tree is to be harvested that year, then that is tended to on this day.  And the arbor needs to be constructed.  Lastly there's a potluck feast (kind of a Last Supper if you will).

The Dance itself starts that evening around sundown.
Once the Dance starts the Dancers abstain from food, drink and speaking for the remainder of the Dance.  During the Dance they stay in the arbor area (meaning they sleep there too) and leave only to greet the sun each morning and for using the composting toilets located near the arbor area.  There's exceptions to which I'll get into in a bit*.
Whenever Dancers leave the arbor area they wrap themselves in a sheet or blanket to "hold in" the energy of the Dance area.

The Dance "ends" Monday morning.  Usually there's the morning sun greeting and then at least one round of Dancing (but there may be more rounds depending on conditions and such).  There's a water ceremony and the fast is broken with watermelon.
Then its up to the house for a feast and a debrief of everyone involved afterwards. 

*Those exceptions I mentioned above are as follows: once the day of Dancing is done on both Saturday and Sunday evenings, each Dancer is given about eight ounces of body temperature-warm tea (non-caffeinated).  That's all the sustenance one gets during the Dance (drink it sloooowly!)
On really hot days sprigs of mint that have been soaked in cold water are distributed as well.  You're welcome to lick the water off the mint leaves and even nibble or suck on them as you like.
As for speaking: if a Dancer is having a problem, they can of course voice it to one of the Helpers; or if a Helper thinks a Dancer is in distress, they'll quietly speak with them to check in.  This isn't an endurance race.  If there's an issue it needs to be addressed quickly.
Once in a while the Dancers are also instructed to leave the arbor to dance around or in the Peace Chamber that's on the property.  This isn't done every time though.

The Arbor

The Dance arbor is a temporary, open air, round structure built with wooden poles around the outer part of the circle.  They're spaced about five to six feet apart.  Longer poles lean up against them from the outside and tarps are tied across these poles to form lean-to's about seven to eight feet deep that the Dancers stay in during the Dance.

The arbor is oriented to the four cardinal points.  Once it's built, the only way in or out is through an opening directly facing East.  A fire is built inline with this opening that burns throughout the entire Dance.

A tree is cut down from the surrounding area and carefully prepared and "replanted" in the center of the arbor.  This is the anchor point for the whole Dance. 
The same tree is typically used for two years and remains in place even after the arbor has been taken down again for the year.  Some Dance arbors feature a living tree in the center.

The drummers are set up in the lean-to to the immediate left of the door.  A bench is placed in the space to the immediate right where Helpers sit during the Dance.  Other than these spaces, Dancers can choose any other lean-to around the circle.

The lean-to's directly oriented to the South, North and West are marked with colored ribbons and choosing those spaces sometimes entails taking on added responsibilities during the Dance.

Dancers must store everything in their 7' x 6'-ish space that they'll need during the Dance for their comfort - namely a sleeping bag and pillow.  Changes of clothes and additional tarps for ground cover and added weather protection are also brought.  Most people hang a bug net over their sleeping bag to keep insects out.  White sheets are hung up for privacy and to wrap oneself when leaving the arbor area.  Some people bring rain gear.  Scentless sunscreen and bug spray are also encouraged.

The Helpers

Not everyone who participates in a Sun-Moon Dance is a Dancer.  There are Helpers present too who "hold the space" and keep a watchful eye on the Dancers.  Helpers don't fast during the Dance, in fact they're well-fed during the event.  They are also not bound to be silent, but voices are kept quiet near the arbor or Dancers.  Though encouraged to sleep in tents and use the composting toilets located farther away from the arbor area to take some of the strain off the house, they don't sleep out in the open like the Dancers do.

Apart from Rick and Elisa who conduct the Dance and interact directly with the Dancers, Helpers typically stay outside the arbor area and rarely have direct contact with the Dancers.  They're watchers and facilitators who make the Dance as safe and comfortable for the Dancers as possible.  They make sure the outhouses are clean and fully stocked.  Shielded candles are kept going inside the outhouses at night for light.  They smudge the area outside the arbor multiple times a day to keep the energies clean.  Anyone who enters or leaves the arbor area is smudged as well.
Night or day there's always at least one Helper near the arbor to tend the fire and in case a Dancer needs assistance.

Only when a Dancer falls (more on that later) do Helpers enter the arbor and even then it's in a very organized, calm and ritualistic manner.

Though they don't fast or Dance (per say), Helpers can often have experiences just as moving and profound as the Dancers.

The Dance

Once the arbor is constructed, the Dancers choose a space around the circle where they'll "live" during the dance.  Once their space is chosen they'll spend most of their time during the Dance either sitting or resting within that space or moving between their space and the tree in the center of the arbor.

During each round of Dancing a large drum is beat and the drummers sing in the Native American style.  The beat of the drum is what wakes the Dancers in the morning and calls them to Dance for each round.  When the drum is going, you're Dancing; when it stops, you're done Dancing for that round.
"Dancing" entails moving from one's space to the tree and back.  There's no choreography or specific way to do this.  You simply walk or move however you like to the beat of the drum.  Back and forth, back and forth.  Everyone moves at their own pace, fast, slow, running, walking, shuffling, however you are moved to move.  There's no right or wrong way so long as you don't cross another dancer's path.

While Dancing, the Dancers blow a little bone whistle that's given to them the first day of their first Dance.  Unless it breaks or they lose it, this is the whistle they'll use for every Dance thereafter.  Blowing the whistle makes the Dancer focus on their breath while Dancing.  It's the only noise Dancers are encouraged to make during the Dance.

A round of Dancing can be anywhere from a few minutes to a half hour (perhaps longer, but I'm pretty sure not).  Each round is followed by a few minutes to a few hours of rest.  There can be as few as three to as many as seven or eight rounds of Dancing in a given day.  This depends a lot on the weather and how hot it is.  Again the safety of the Dancers is always taken into account.

During times when they're not Dancing, Dancers are encouraged to lay in their area and meditate, rest or sleep.  Since there's nowhere to go and you're not eating, talking, reading (or even journaling), sleep is really the only thing to do when not Dancing.
Dancing only goes on during daylight hours.  Dancers get to sleep at night.

Though Dancers tend to develop a certain rapport with each other during the Dance, they don't really directly interact with each other.  Sure, you need to pay attention to your neighbors when you get near the tree since the paths get close together there; but a Dancer's existence pretty much revolves around their whistle, their sleeping space, the tree, the path between the two, the drum and themselves.

Dancers are not obligated to Dance every round, though one does have to Dance at least one round each day.  If you're tired or weak or too hot or want to meditate or sleep or just chill, you can stay in your area during Dancing.

Dress Code

"Modest" clothing is the order of the day.  This means shoulders and chests must be covered (no tank tops, sports bras or shirtless men).  Legs must be covered to at least the knee.  I think even midriffs must be covered, but I'm not 100% certain on that one.

Skirts must be worn - even by the guys.  The symbolism here is the round skirt hem is synonymous with the round Earth.  It's open for energies to "rise up" through the feet.  I'm assuming since the skirt is also associated with the more "passive" sex, it puts in place the psychological mindset to be open and receptive to the powerful energies of the Universe.  You're welcome to draw whatever analogies you like.

Fortunately you're not forbidden to wear anything under the skirt.
Guys typically wear shorts with a sarong tied around their waist.  It works just as well.  Some ladies do this too.

Other than those few points, anything goes.  Colors, materials, layers and styles are at the Dancer's discretion.  One is encouraged to dress for the weather: hot days, cool nights, possible rain, possible intense sun.

You can be barefoot or wear shoes/sandals as you like.
Jewelry is fine.
Hats and other head-coverings are fine.  Since there's no bathing during the Dance, most people cover their hair by the end.


The Dance can dredge up a lot of emotional baggage for people.  Sometimes people crumple under the weight of what bubbles up.  Some people deliberately charge at the tree multiple times until they bounce off and land flat on their back.  Other people slip into a state where Vision happens and drift to the ground.  Whatever the reason, if a Dancer falls down or collapses during a round of Dancing the drummers immediately quiet the beat without stopping the rhythm.  This is an indication to the Dancers (who may not have noticed the fall yet) to stop where they are in their circuit.  Usually they'll continue blowing their whistles, just quietly.

The Helpers, led by one of the facilitators will enter the arbor with a large sheet.
The facilitator will assess what state the fallen Dancer is in and this will determine how long they'll lay where they fell.  Unless the facilitator needs to intervene for the health or safety of the Dancer, the fallen Dancer is touched as little as possible.

Once it's determined it's okay to move them, the Dancer is gently rolled onto the sheet and carried by the Helpers to their sleeping area.  Once they're lifted off the ground, all the other Dancers blow their whistles loudly to show their support for the fallen Dancer.  Depending on the reason for their fall someone may sit with them for a while.

Usually Dancing resumes once the Helpers have again left the arbor.
The fallen Dancer will always at least sit out the rest of that round of Dancing.

Four Days, Four Years

Four tends to pop up frequently in Native American ritual.  Apart from the four days of the Dance, Dancers are also asked to commit to participating for four years.  There's different reasons for this and different people will give you different answers.
A short, sweet and easy answer is partly because the Dance is such an alien concept within our Western culture, the four year commitment gives the Dancer the opportunity to have a full and well-rounded experience.

The first year can be a bit overwhelming since the new Dancer may not really know what's going on or what to expect.
Year two offers the Dancer a little less sensory overload so they can deepen into their Dance with less worry and more understanding.
By year three one has a much better idea of what to expect and you can "let go and let God" much easier.
Year four is a culmination of what one has learned throughout the previous Dances and the door is opened for gratitude and an ever deepening connection to Spirit/God/Divinity.

So why do all this?

People Dance for many reasons and I won't try to speculate much on them.
My own reasons are rather nebulous even to myself but it's something I'm always honored to do.
I Dance as a willing sacrifice for the greater whole. 
I Dance to open myself more to Divinity.
I Dance to find my own strength.

Relatively speaking we live in a very safe world full of guardrails and safety labels.  I think to a certain degree this sheltered, pillowed existence numbs the spirit.  The "adrenaline junkie" tries to break out of that cushioned bubble by doing things that are daring and dangerous.  Nothing makes one feel more alive than coming face to face with how tenuous life can be.

I kind of see the Sun-Moon Dance as something like that, just with more meaning placed upon it.  Like what was stated before though, it'd not an endurance race.  You don't do it to see how hard you can push your body.  You do it to see how much you can live.

It is inherently dangerous though.  Dancers are watched very carefully and will get pulled from the Dance if they're in genuine distress.  Fasting isn't fun, especially in our well-fed society.  You do get hungry.  You do get thirsty.  Some people even experience physical pain from fasting.
But you survive.

My body doesn't do well when overtaxed and every time I choose to Dance (this year will in theory be the last), I need to take a hard and honest look at where I'm at to see if my body can handle it that year.  I don't Dance on years where I have something big planned near the Dance.  It needs all your focus and attention and it takes a lot out of you.

It gives you a lot back though.  The inner strength one gains from completing a Dance is pretty hard to beat.  It can completely dissolve one's fear of death and also one's fear of life.

It's difficult and terrifying but it's also life-affirming and amazing.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Playing Catch-Up (Karate-related)

In my adult life I've been drawn to activities that I know will challenge me.  I happen to be a quick study though, so once I've reached a level of proficiency I'm happy with I tend to drop that activity without guilt or remorse and move on to the next thing to pour my attention into.

This was my initial draw to Karate.  Like yoga, Tai Chi and belly dance before it I picked it up quickly and even practiced what I could at home.  I advanced quickly and had a blast with it.

Despite there being many reasons why I left after just a year and a half of study, one reason was hitting that inevitable plateau of proficiency.

When I returned almost three years later and got pounced on by Sensei to go for my brown belt though, something shifted.  I had made it as far as I could get on my base-line skills alone, if I truly wanted to keep advancing I'd have to step it up and take it far more seriously than I had any other hobby prior to that.  And that's exactly what I did.

Having just barely squeaked by for my 3rd Kyu I was determined to never test that poorly again (in my defense I only had about two months to prepare for that test).  Since then I've started getting up a half hour early each morning to do strength and flexibility exercises on my own (something I would have never dreamed of doing before even when I was marathon training!).  I've adjusted my diet to include more fresh fruits and vegetables (I already had carbs and proteins well-covered).  Just like when preparing for my third degree brown belt test, I show up early for every class and stay for every advanced class I can.  I even bug advanced students for private lessons whenever I feel I can swing it.  I'm a woman on a mission!

Why? You may ask.  What makes this different from everything else?
My main answer is that Karate is an activity where one's level of ability is actually labeled (with the belt system) and I'm playing catch-up with my rank-peers.

Most people who make it up to the higher ranks in a martial art have been doing it since they were kids.  Even if they take a break for college or work or military service or marriage or whatever, they have those years of prior experience behind them to help them through their training gap.  They have the muscle memory to backup their movements.  Half-forgotten combinations from their childhood are easily reactivated with a little practice.  Principles they've been hearing since they were ten have soaked into their thinking and being, hardly requiring a second thought.

I started taking Karate when I was 30.  Sure I'd done about three years of Tai Chi before that but I hardly count that since Tai Chi is a soft style with very different movements.  If you do want to count that though it still only means I've been studying martial arts since my mid- to late-twenties.

I also came to Karate with different motives than most adults.  I'm not doing it as a fear reaction or even specifically for physical fitness (though that "side effect" is nice).  I do it because I enjoy the physical challenge.  I want to see if I really can be able to do a full split some day (I'm getting close!).  I want to see if I really can throw a front snap kick to a person's face (the dynamics of which are still an utter mystery to me though).

And that's another thing that motivates me: the mystery.  There's still so much to learn but with the promise that it's all learnable with enough time and effort.  And I want to learn so much!
And so that's why I get up early in the morning to do my 35-50 push-ups (I'd like to work up to a consistent 50) or hold a horse stance for two solid minutes or learn how to land a roundhouse kick with the ball of my foot rather than the top.  My goal is to have my black belt by the time I'm 40 (which is five years away).  It's a lofty goal, but achievable.

Sure all this playing catch-up can lead to muscle soreness, jammed toes and bruised shins and knees, but I'm having a hell of a lot of fun in the process!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Being in Shape

Well, for better or worse the New Year is here and many people will make the age-old resolution to "get in shape", but what does that mean really?

For many that just automatically means losing a few pounds and running on a treadmill for the first six weeks of the new year.

As someone who's always been self-conscious of my weight (in the other direction) I bristle when people think that being skinny instantly means you're "in shape".

There's been times I couldn't jog up a gentle incline without being winded and my legs burning in agony.  I can assure you that weight has nothing to do with being in shape; so what does it entail?

Personally I really like what this article says as it pretty much agrees with my own personal views on the topic. In a nutshell it boils it down to being physically fit (good muscle tone), and having a decent amount of physical endurance - something anyone can achieve no matter what the scale says.

I have a wonderful friend who most people would call "heavy".  They'd likely look at her and think, "That chick needs to lose a few pounds!"  She also happens to be one of the best belly dancers I know.  Her muscle isolations are superb and her technique would make any seasoned dancer jealous.  This lady - despite her weight - is very much in shape.

So don't get tangled up in what number glares back at you from the scale - it's really not as important as you think.  Instead be active; and I don't mean running on a treadmill for hours on end.  I've done that before when I was marathon training and hated every minute of it.  Running is bad for your knees anyway and needs to be supplemented with other exercises to keep from damaging your joints.  Instead take up a physical hobby like dance or hiking or biking or swimming or martial arts or yoga or Pilates.

For some reason people seem to think that recreational physical activity is just for kids.  They sign the little ones up for soccer and softball and gymnastics.  They drive them all over the place for meets and competitions and recitals, but don't take a single moment for themselves to do something fun that'll get the blood pumping!

Grown-ups need activities too.  Drop the kids off at practice and go off to your own class.  Hell, the kids might even be signed up for an activity that you can participate in as well!  And before you say "I'm too old for [fill in the blank]" remind yourself that you wanted to get in shape right?  If you can afford the time and money for a gym membership you won't be using come March (and feel guilty about), you can find the time and money for something you'll actually enjoy and stick with.

Get off the scale and get on a yoga mat or a dance floor or a ball field or whatever.  Get moving!