I get a special thrill when I visit or hear about a vegetarian or vegan restaurant. I get a similar charge when I eat at any restaurant that serves a great vegetarian meal, or even tries to. When I first started blogging about vegetarian dining in restaurants, I promised myself that I wouldn’t be negative. If I visited an establishment that wasn’t good, I just wouldn’t write about it. I will stick with that promise.
Last night my husband and another couple took me out to celebrate my recent appointment as director of the Garden State Philharmonic Chorus. They let me choose the restaurant. I hadn’t been to New Hope, PA in a long time, so I decided that we should revisit Sprig and Vine, self-labeled “Pure Vegetarian.” I remember the four of us being thrilled with the food when we had first eaten there. I just want to say that I really, really like this restaurant. Everything I say here is an encouragement out of love to keep me (and hopefully many others) thrilled by going there.
It was a Saturday night. We expected the town, on an October weekend with 80-degree weather, to be crowded. It was. But that’s half the fun of going there. We had reservations for 7 PM. We arrived at the restaurant at 6:58 and walked in the door. It was busy, but not completely full. There was no one at the receptionist desk, so we stood at the doorway. There was a staff member, perhaps a waiter, about 5 feet away behind a counter doing something. We stood at the doorway for 5-7 minutes. He never looked up. The woman I assume was the door receptionist was walking through the small restaurant tending to things at various tables. She passed by us several times and didn’t acknowledge us. Several other staff members passed by us, but no one said anything. The receptionist came to the stand by the door and stood silently looking down at the stand. We stood facing her for about a minute when she looked up and said, “Hi.” I mention this because the whole scenario set an odd tone to the evening. The four of us agreed that the overall experience felt aloof. In such a small restaurant I think it’s important to interact with people coming in the door in a rather immediate fashion. It creates an uplifting welcome, and colors the whole dining experience.
We were seated at a booth. Two or three minutes later weAQ got menus. The server came to the table. She never said her name. I don’t need to know her name, but it contributed to the nonchalance of the evening. We ordered four appetizers for the table, and each of us ordered the soup. After about ten minutes, we each got a bowl of Roasted Root Vegetable Puree soup. It looked fantastic, and tasted out of this world good. But it wasn’t hot. I found it odd that the soup came first, but I don’t know of any rules of order for pre-entrée dining. The apps were Garlic-Cashew Chips (tasty), Pickled Local Vegetables (good), Grilled Shishito Peppers (bland), and Edamame Falafel (delicious). Two of us had Paella, which was “saffron bomba rice, roasted corn, zucchini, fennel, sweet pepper, and cauliflower, grilled shishito pepper and cherry tomato, and green olive.” Those two plates came to the table while those two diners waited about five minutes before the other plates came, which were Kakiage Udon -- “tempura vegetables, udon noodles, nori-miso butter, spinach, corn, ginger aioli, togarashi” and my dish, which was Egglant and Black Lentil Curry -- "tomato-coconut curry sauce, lemon-curry leaf basmati rice, coconut-cucumber salad, pickled red onion, and cilantro." The two paella eaters said that their dish was bland. The udon eater enjoyed his dish very much. Mine was excellent, but I would have preferred much more spice. It was delicate. I’m not what I would think of as a delicate eater. But I imagine that many are.
We decided to walk into town for ice cream, so we skipped the desserts. They did sound good on the dessert menu, though. Would I go back? Perhaps. I wouldn’t go all the way (an hour and a half) to New Hope just to go to this restaurant. But I hope they stick around. The food is thoughtful and well-prepared. For a special occasion I like to be wowed. When I take meat eaters to a vegetarian restaurant, I want them to rave. And we need more vegan and vegetarian restaurants!
Sprig and Vine is at 450 Union Square Drive, New Hope PA
It’s about time I came out. Out, as in to everyone. I’m 57 and it’s about time. I know there are people who know. I display telltale signs. I let my hair down to people I know well. I know people know it about me when I go to places that are, well, comfortable. Where people like me are expected. Or maybe just tolerated. I can see in the faces of people I meet when their eyes cast downward and they suspect. But now is the time for everyone to know. I’m hairy. Yeah. And on the male scale of hirsuteness, I’m pretty hairy. It’s everywhere.
I feel better just saying it. And I’m proud to be hairy. I think if a man has hair, he ought to let it grow. It’s natural. Normal. Desired, even, if I dare say so. And frankly, I’m tired of the blatant put downs – the not-so-subtle insults – the sort-of secret whispers. I like my hair and people need to allow me my right to let it pulse in the breeze and soak up the sun.
I was recently on a massage therapist FaceBook group page, reading a question by a therapist about how to treat men with hairy bodies, and was disturbed to read several comments like, “Nair,” “a razor,” and the like. I mean, would we be encouraged to discuss body size in the same way? No. It would cause an uproar. We would be told to treat all of our clients with respect. Well, as a client, and as a therapist, I was insulted, to say the least, and upset that people in the health profession were degrading a certain class of clients with humorless insults.
I got over it. I did make a comment on the page similar to that above, and one offender apologized to me saying that she was just trying to be funny. I answered her comment saying that if there were therapists who were disgusted by body hair, they should send those clients to me! I’d be happy to work with them. And their hair.
So what do I expect? To be treated like a normal person that no more needs to shave than another person needs to cover up. We all have parts of us that others would prefer not to see. But we can’t go around demanding that people hide things just to suit our personal tastes. And I assure everyone that the hair on my body will be at least as clean as the hair on their heads.
On July 1, 2017 I retired. Well, “retire” isn’t a good word to describe what I’ve done. I’m still working. I needed a word that means quit one career to pursue another, and the only one I could think of was “retire.” I worked for 34 years as a full time musician in the Diocese of Trenton, first as a music teacher, then as a full time director of music in three different parishes over the course of 28 years. It was a fun career. I got to make a living as a musician, which is what I set out to do. And I made a decent living for 34 years as a musician.
I get asked all the time why I gave up on a career that was fun, engaging, profitable, and sustaining. The answer I first give is, “Because I didn’t want to do it anymore.” It’s true. I worked, essentially, for the same company for 34 years. Who does that nowadays? And there comes a time when you just have to do something else. I needed to quit and follow another path while I was still young enough to. I turned 57 just after my “retirement.” Fortunately, I can go on my husband’s health plan. That was probably the biggest factor in making this decision. I’ve been a yoga teacher for 7 years, and that helped provide for me the idea that I could do something besides music. But that wasn’t enough. I went to school for a year to become a Licensed Massage Therapist. That was the final step in preparing for my grand exit from the church music scene.
But I haven’t exited totally. In fact, yesterday, September 10, was the first Sunday since my retirement that I didn’t play in a church. I always planned to be a substitute organist after I left the full time field. Summer is a ripe time for subbing. I’ve played every Saturday and Sunday since July. What’s good about that is I get to play once, maybe twice a weekend. Not 8 times. And in my life as a full time church musician I went to mass more than any other person I know. Many, many more times. It’s something meant for people to do once a week, or maybe once a day. Not 8 times. That’s what I really didn’t want to do any more.
Getting to be a sub has been enlightening. I get to meet all sorts of different people in different traditions of worship. I get to meet and listen to brilliant women in positions of authority and influence. I get to drive up to churches with rainbows painted on their signs along with phrases like, “ALL are welcomed here.” I get to talk openly about my marriage to people who see that as a strength, and nothing I need to hide. It’s also kept me on my toes, so to speak, having to pay close attention to liturgical sequences I don’t know by rote. I have to concentrate on playing hymns and service music I may or may not have ever seen before. I have to adapt to a wide variety of instruments of various ages, and in various conditions of repair and functioning. The whole process has made me feel elevated, and very self-confident.
I love massage, as well. I will always, first and foremost, be a musician. An artist. But learning about the body, and being able to help people relax and heal has been thrilling. As a musician I may never see the effect my work has had. As a massage therapist I most often immediately see the benefits my work has on the body and on the person.
I plan to share more about my “retirement,” and the opportunities it has brought.
Sometimes I do things people tell me I shouldn’t. Don’t get me wrong. If it’s for good reason, like not stepping into wet concrete, or not going into shark-infested waters, then I obey. Considering, though, our fondness for giving direction to others, it can be wise, and even fun to do things that others may warn against. Last Saturday I gave a concert of music written by women. I wasn’t told directly not to do it, but I did get several inquisitive reactions when I told friends and colleagues of my idea, that smelled of criticism and censure. But I did it anyway.
The concert included works for chorus, performed lovingly by an excellent group of friends and colleagues, vocal solos, sung by me accompanied expertly by three friends on the piano, (not at the same time, of course, although I’ve done three at one piano before, and, as a matter of fact, I did sing one song with two people playing at one piano at this concert), piano solo, played by me, and organ solo, played by me, and my three friends who also played the piano. Three of the composers are no longer living. As I prepared for this concert I read biographies on these women. Each was often discouraged from pursuing any kind of career in music, and also told that women of a certain social standing shouldn’t perform or compose, or that women didn’t have the brains or the emotional strength to compose serious music. Yet each chose to compose and perform in spite of these warnings. And compose they did. Music comparable to what was being written by men at the time, and certainly well worth repeated performance then and now.
Those three women were Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, sister of the composer Felix Mendelssohn, Clara Wieck Schumann, wife of the composer Robert Schumann, and Amy Beach, known at the time as Mrs. H. H. A. Beach because her husband insisted that she use as much of his name as possible. We also performed music by three living women composers, who, as far as I could tell, were not discouraged from studying, composing, and performing music, nor from pursuing a viable career in music. Those three were Barbara Harbach, who obtained a PhD in composition from the Eastman School of Music, Emma Lou Diemer, who also obtained a doctorate from Eastman, and, incidentally, who turns 90 this November as she continues to compose and perform, and Joan Szymko, who is one of the most often-performed American choral composers.
As the concert ended I conveyed this to the audience, right after I sang Amy Beach’s song, “Wouldn’t That Be Queer":
"We often tell each other that we shouldn’t do things. Sometimes it’s for good reason, but all too often it’s for no good reason. Women being told that a career as a performer was beneath them, or not proper because they were female. Women being told they didn’t have the brains, the emotional fortitude, or the potential to be world-class composers of anything remotely serious. Men who are told something they do is not masculine enough. We like to tell each other what to do, or what not to do. It is my sincere hope that you will hear as much music in the future by women as you do by men. If I have done anything tonight to move us farther down that path, I will be happy."
Then after the concert, at a local restaurant with many of the performers, one soprano raised her glass in a toast and said, “To women.”
I raised my beer and said, “To doing things we’re told we shouldn’t.”
Seven Ways to Become Sound This Morning
1. As soon as you get up, take a deep breath. Inhale and let your belly expand, then your chest. Exhale and draw your belly in. You can also do this anytime throughout the day. Set an alarm on your phone to remind you periodically, and put a Post It note on your computer screen that says, "Breathe."
2. Hum. Yes, hum. If you're alone do it at a normal, soft volume. If you're not alone, hum so softly that only you can hear it. It's ok to feel embarrassed. That will only last a few seconds. Just make one long, soft "mmmmmm."
3. Raise your straight arms overhead. Don't worry about how high they do or don't go. Inhale up, exhale down. Start with just one.
4. Close your eyes and say to yourself in your head, "May I be happy. May I be strong. May I be healthy. May I live with ease."
5. As long as your eyes are closed, imagine someone you love. Say in your head, "May they be happy. May they be strong. May they be healthy. May they live with ease."
6. Imagine someone you have difficulty with. Say in your head, "May they be happy. May they be strong. May they be healthy. May they live with ease."
7. Inhale and stretch your arms out wide. Exhale and bring your hands to your heart.
I have to say that I’ve never eaten in a gym before. I wasn’t planning on it today. I was going to work out at the gym before continuing on to school (That’s the massage school I’ve been attending for the past year). I hadn’t eaten lunch, and I didn’t want to eat lunch at home right before I worked out, so I thought I would stop somewhere on my way to school, probably for a protein bar. I worked out as usual, even though I was a bit hungry, showered in the locker room, got dressed, and headed for my car. I knew that just past the main entrance was some sort of food place, but I had never been down to that end of the main hallway. Just before I turned to exit the building I decided to head down and check out what they had to offer, if they were even open. I approached a food counter, not seeing anyone around, and found a menu in a holder on the counter. My expectations in eating at the gym were not high, I have to admit. I figured I’d be called “Bro” a few times, and express dismay at my limited options as a vegetarian. As I started to read the menu, I heard a voice from an opening between the counter and the kitchen behind. It was a young man working in the back who assured me that he would be right with me. I’m not sure what I was expecting. I think it was a few protein shakes, and maybe burger or two. I mean, it’s in a gym. I did see a picture on the wall of the small counter area of a salad with shrimp on it. I can’t say it got my hopes up, but I was getting a little better feeling about my decision.
A different young man, Timmy, came out to the counter from the kitchen and asked me what I wanted. I think he put it more like, “What can I do you for?” or something like that. I explained that I didn’t eat animals, and noticed one or two vegetarian items on the menu. He said that he highly recommended the Vegetarian Wrap. I looked at the description and told him that I would try it. An older man, Demitri, came out from the kitchen and asked me what sides I wanted. Even though they had brown rice and beans listed, he said that they didn’t offer that any more. So I chose the brown rice. Turns out he’s the manager of this food establishment which operates inside the gym.
While I waited for them to prepare my meal another young man appeared at the kitchen window. Turns out this was Mike, the chef. Demitri asked him to explain to me what was in the wrap. Mike appeared delighted to tell me that he put hummus on the wrap, then he sautéed peppers, onions and several other things that I don’t remember because this whole exchange was getting more and more interesting, and took my mind off the ingredients. He described with enthusiasm the way he cooked the food and then at the end put in raw spinach to delicately get warmed and wilted by the hot vegetables. Then he asked if I wanted cheddar cheese with my wrap. I said, “Of course!”
I had quite an interesting exchange with Demitri about him growing up in Greece, and how Mike was always singing, and since I was a musician, did I need backup singers. You get the idea. It was quite unexpectedly pleasant, considering what I was expecting by having lunch at a gym.
Mike eventually brought out my wrap and rice. I ate the rice first. It was delicious. Very nicely spiced. Demitri started listing the ingredients when Mike said, “And do you know the special ingredient? The most important ingredient?” I must have appeared dumbstruck. He said, “It starts with an L.” I asked if he was sure that he could tell me his secret without killing me. He said, “It’s love. The most important ingredient.”
Ultimate Grill is inside The Robert Wood Johnson Fitness and Wellness Center, 1044 US Highway 9, Parlin, NJ 08859
Who doesn't like a little excitement? I love to be excited about food. Not just excited at the prospects of satisfying hunger, but excited by the potential of the experience of eating itself, and then being excited by the process in many aspects. I remember well the thrill of the smell and the intense flavor of a well-cooked meat. I can easily say that such fervent emotion is not as easy to come by as a vegetarian. The passion I have for being a vegetarian is profound. However, often I find I'm not easily titillated by quickly prepared meals of my own, and even less often by what I find in restaurants.
Today my excitement was aroused in anticipation of and in the process of eating a simple lunch while on a quick trip to Miami. I'm here in Miami now just after a weekend conference of the Ocular Melanoma Foundation with my husband, Joe. After the charge we got with our very first Uber ride from the hotel near the airport to the beautiful city of Coral Gables, we took the advice of Joe's local cousin to try out Seasons 52. The inside and outside of the place is inspiring. My eyes were comforted and delighted by the abundance of mahogany, stone, and deeply-colored cloth. The acoustic environment was perfect for quiet conversation. We sat in a booth near the bar and perused the menu. Our very helpful waiter, Nathalie, directed our attention to the Miami Spice week special tasting menu. Joe ordered that with a flatbread Margarita pizza, and a steak salad. There was no vegetarian entree with that, so I had the Autumn Vegetarian Tasting Plate. I ordered an appetizer of Blistered Shishito Peppers. As Joe was eating his pizza I feasted on a bowl of these little peppers I picked up by the stem. Nathalie said that I might be lucky and get a hot one. They were like green pepperoncini with thinner skin. The taste was mild and pleasing, which complimented the covering of Sonoma goat-feta cheese, lemon aioli, and sumac. The salt grains were on it, delighting the tongue rather than flavoring the dish. I was tickled that one of them was hot, kind of like a poblano. After munching on all the peppers I ate the roasted corn in the bottom of the bowl, which was bathing in the melted cheese and aioli. Nathalie called it "succotash." It was an exciting experience. Rich and flavorful. A constantly interesting mix of spice and texture.
For my main course I experienced a tender fennel-roasted onion. It did indeed remind me of the way I often steam fennel, then grill it to just char the outer layer. This onion was coated with savory breadcrumbs. Next on my plate was a kohlrabi steak. Nathalie verified my suspicion that it was a round of kohlrabi that had been marinated (for four hours in a cilantro marinade) and cooked (baked) then grilled on the fire. The texture was perfect, just resisting the tender slicing of my fork. I need to make this at home. It was draped in asparagus that was perfectly cooked and crisp. It was definitely something from the earth, not a can or a bag. On that was a delightful salsa, just hot enough with a complexity of spice and texture. Finally I made my way to a small cast iron dish of vegan paella. Soft, warm, spicy, and delicious. I guessed that the bottom of the pan was layered with a spicy seitan. I was wrong. Nathalie checked with the chef. It was Chorizo Tofurkey.
I had to have dessert. I chose Peanut Butter Torte. This was a small glass of chocolate cake, chocolate bits, peanut butter mousse, peanut tuile, and peanuts.
This whole meal appeared to me to be well thought out, with the diner in mind. The experience was a progression from one delight to the next. Oh, what a little forethought and spice can do! I will definitely check out another Seasons 52. I was excited to learn they are located throughout the country.
Seasons 52 is at 321 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables, FL, www.seasons52.com
Lunch today was exciting, but dinner tonight was an adventure. We would soon see whether that was because of the food, or other factors. It's our last night in Miami, the conference is over. All our old and new friends are gone. My husband Joe and I googled vegetarian restaurants in Miami and found a gourmet vegan restaurant. I was thrilled that he wanted to go. It was a bit farther than lunch was, and would be a $17 Uber ride one way. We had gotten a $15 off our first Uber ride coupon from the conference, so we were back on Uber to a small island off the shores of Miami Beach. The car stopped at a long, walled driveway leading up to a rather ritzy looking apartment building in a rather posh looking neighborhood. No signs. No restaurant. We got out of the car and walked up the steep ramp and around the building until we found a door. The attendant told us that there was indeed a restaurant in the building and asked us to sign in. We were directed to the rather weathered, wood paneled elevator, made our way to the mezzanine floor, and wound around to the back of the building.
The restaurant was an odd combination of bare light bulbs, white plaster, huge glass windows overlooking Biscayne Bay, the Port of Miami, and the high rises of Miami Beach, in a 70's kind of condo building with a yellow Formica'd bathroom. It felt very 70's. We sat out on the terrace since it was a cool (for Miami) breezy evening. It was also odd that we were the only diners not smoking. All of the diners had chosen to eat outside. I thought that perhaps those who chose to eat vegan would also choose not to smoke, but apparently I was wrong.
The menu was four sheets of paper on a clipboard. I was fraught with anticipation with the idea that I could order anything on the menu and not have to worry if it had meat in it. This would not be like the previous Thursday evening at the Cuban restaurant where my entire table had a ten minute discussion (mostly in Spanish) with the waiter and owner about what I could eat on their menu that didn't have meat in it. Their best offering was the chicken soup. The waiter offered to pick the chicken out of it himself. The font of the Full Bloom menu was small and curly, so we had to read it by the light of our iPhones. Seeking the flavorful and exotic, I chose to drink a Pirates on the Ship, which was a tasty blend of gin, grapefruit, and jalapeño. It was rather good: not too tart, not sweet at all, and just spicy enough. Well, that was true until I foraged around the ice with the straw at the end of my drinking experience, managed to latch onto a piece of jalapeño, started biting it not knowing what it was. That was hot.
Joe and I shared an appetizer of Black Bean, Avocado, and Sweet Potato Sliders. They were delicately spiced. I guess I need, at times, to ramp down my expectations so that I can enjoy life's subtleties. The little burgers were good. And my tongue and lips were still tingling from the jalapeño. I wasn't sure what to expect from a Slider. The bus boy had previously brought us shot glasses of gazpacho. I began to wonder if those were the sliders, based on my experience with raw oysters in a shot glass, but it turned out to be more like the White Castle variety with a much more healthy bent.
My entree was Cashew Ricotta and Spinach Ravioli in Butter Sage Sauce. I was glad we had the Sliders. The plate was just about six or seven small ravioli. Nothing else. But it was nutrient dense food. I was not hungry after the meal. The ravioli were great. Again, very subtly spiced. There were whole sage leaves in the sauce. I really enjoyed those.
We opted not to have dessert. We looked at the menu and Joe said, "Vegan dessert? What's the point?" The waiter brought him a small regular coffee with steamed milk, I think as a consolation. Joe said that it was thick enough to chew. If I had had it, which I would love to have had, I would have been awake with a pounding, flopping heart for three days.
It was an adventure. More because of the trip to the posh islets of Miami Beach and the oddity of eating in a condo building than for the food.
Full Bloom is at 11 Island Avenue, Miami Beach, FL, www.fullbloomvegan.com
A vegetarian-friendly sounding menu doesn't guarantee a satisfying meal, and a vegetarian-unfriendly one doesn't forebode a bad one. I have been to Papiemento on the island of Aruba before, and I can't tell you what I had. But I do have pleasant memories of the place. It is a stunningly beautiful outdoor setting, nestled in an 19th-century Aruban farmhouse. Many small tables surround an elegant blue swimming pool. The other tables are scattered beneath tropical trees that fan out in all directions. Basket lamps hang from branches. I wonder what they do if it rains. It did rain lightly when I was here four years ago, but we didn't get wet. This year the weather was perfect for an outdoor dining adventure.
The menu offered a cream of mushroom soup, but no other vegetarian dishes. But I didn't worry. I knew something good would happen. I started out with my new favorite tropical drink, a Caipirinha, made with fresh, muddled limes, and a Brazilian rum-like liquor. I was in charge of the wine this time, and I selected an old vine Zinfandel. I've already had enough white wine to drink for the rest of the year. Yes, I know, the night before was only one glass. But since I'm in charge, it's going to be red. I dislike white wine, but I hate zucchini more, so my friend Brian insisted that I tell the waiter I'm allergic to it. So I did. He said that the chef could offer me a pasta dish with vegetables and a red or a curry sauce. As I chose the curry, my friend Gregg blurted out, "And he's allergic (big emphasis on allergic) to zucchini!" The waiter asked me if I would eat yellow squash, which to me isn't much different from the green kind. I told him that I would eat it, but I'd rather not. He looked at me intently for a few seconds, then left.
My soup was delicious. Creamy, but not at all salty like the mushrooms I had had the night before. The wine came. It was perfect. Dry. Smooth. And red. Yes, red. A deep, dark red. The kind that belies the old in old vine. Not long after the soup was gone a Caesar salad came. I should say, "Caesar" because the dressing was mild and bland, kind of like ranch. Not that I've had ranch recently. Then came a large black bowl with just a few pieces of penne, lots of yellow and orange pepper slices, two huge and thick asparagus stalks, and broccoli di rape, all in a light coconut curry sauce. I was riddled with delight. I guess my allergy to zucchini will be taking hold.
After the main course I took a trip to the men's room. I include this here because it is one of the highlights of a visit to this restaurant. Not to diminish the food or decor in any way, but there's a palm tree growing in the men's room, right up from the cement floor and out a hole in the ceiling. There's a sign next to it asking guys not to, um ... water it.
As others at my table ordered dessert, I asked the waiter for a Mamajuana. His eyes lit up. He brought the bottle and proudly showed it to me and the rest of the table. The bottle was filled with what looked like wood chips. Mamajuana is a liquor from the Dominican Republic. It's made of red wine, honey, and over forty herbs, spices, and roots and bark from various tropical trees and shrubs. It was delicious, and made my lips numb. I'm sure it's illegal in the US. I will find out when I get home. Aruba is indeed One Happy Island.
Papiemento is at Washington 61, Noord, Aruba
It's Friday morning. Our last full day in Aruba. It's 7:50 and the sun is brightly shining. This hasn't happened in a few days. I want to go immediately to the beach but I go to the 8 am yoga class, hoping the sun will burn off the bugs, or at least make them seek shelter in the bushes. Alia, the yoga teacher from the previous two classes, smiles a wide smile when she sees me. We talk about how I felt after the last class. We talk about the restaurants I've gone to, and the classes she is taking to finish high school. Yes, she is that young. I'd say twenty since she is attending night school. One other woman who has only done Pilates and not yoga before comes to the grass. We begin.
The class is hard, but faster than the previous classes. I think it is because of the bugs. Most of the class is standing poses, again, I think, to keep us above the bugs. Although we do some arm balances near the ground. I contemplate holding my breath, but I decide against it. A bug is dangerously close to my nose. I snort to shoo it away. I snort a few more times in a steady rhythm so that everyone thinks I’m doing a yoga breathing technique called “Skull Shining Breath.” But I stop because I feel silly pretending. I do something she calls Fallen Angel. I stay in it for about a second and then fall. "Beautiful!" Alia says. But she's looking directly at me.
After a very sweaty class I say goodbye as I tell her I'm leaving tomorrow. She gives me a hug. I'm glad I got up for class. But I'm also glad to be going home. I feel rested and rejuvenated.
It's Wednesday morning, my sixth day of vacation. I didn’t go to the yoga class on Monday morning. I'm at the 8:00 yoga class on the grass now. It's very cloudy and looks as if it will rain any second. Alia, the yoga teacher, is happy to see me. I am her only student. She asks me if there was anything I want to focus on. I say that I like arm balances. Here we are doing them. I think we are going to go through them all. I only know of fifteen or twenty. I bet she knows arm balances that I’ve never heard of. She seems excited that I can do them. I'm just happy to be pushed a little to do things I haven't done in a while.
Since it's just the two of us, I talk to Alia during the class. I tell her how I'm doing. She offers me encouragement. There are several poses I only approach doing. Nothing as deep as she does. Then again, I'm 55 and when I was her age that I'm guessing is not much more than twenty, it would be almost ten years before I would even start a yoga practice. I'm comforted by that. I'm also a little proud as I notice people walking by the grass spot where we sweat. I notice it is the men who are looking. I entertain the idea that they are looking at me with envy because of my practice, not because of the young woman I'm sweating with.
It’s good to do things differently while you’re on vacation. I could get used to having someone tell me what to do.
It's Friday the Thirteenth, and my first morning in Aruba. I saw on the board last night when we got to the hotel that there was a yoga class at 8 this morning. That's 7 New Jersey time. I haven't done yoga that early in the morning in years. But I'm on vacation, so I get up at 7:30 and start walking around the beach area near all the hotels near mine. I don't have a mat. The class is on a patch of grass near the beach. At about 7:50 I pass by the place and see a young woman sitting on a yoga mat on the grassy patch surrounded by bushes and small trees. I go around to the opening and step onto the grass. She sees me and gives me a sort of pained look, as if to say, "What are you doing on my lawn?" I ask her if this is the yoga place. She says, "Yes," and I take one of the four mats sitting by the opening and roll it out near her. It's very windy, and I have a hard time hearing what she is saying, but I do clearly understand, "You're really early." I guess she's not used to anyone coming to her grass class before 8. People who come here must always be in vacation mode. I take advantage of our alone time and find out that she teaches at a studio about a five minute walk from the hotel. Her favorite class there is Hot Hatha, something like Bikram. She asks if I have any experience doing yoga. I say, "Yes." That's all she needs to know. Three women show up just in time for class. She tells us that the class will be gentle.
Turns out she likes Ashtanga, and leads us through most of the first series. Ashtanga Yoga is what I'd call a rather aggressive form of the practice. My experience with the first series is that it's a lot of forward bends that my tight male hips and legs find extremely challenging. Women don't seem to have much trouble with those, so I set myself up for a rather painful time. I do ok with most of the moves, even though I think I can hear my muscles creaking. I hope the wind rushing through the palm trees covers it. The women and the teacher don't seem to be looking my way at all. I'm safe.
I do happen to notice that the teacher and I are the only ones who get up and balance on one leg in Bird of Paradise, a rather difficult pose, especially on the uneven grass. I try not to look smug as I glance at the limber thirty-something women as they fumble around on the grass, looking as if they are trying to scratch their back upper leg with both hands, trying to get into the pose. Fair is fair. They probably saw me in not too few awkward moments as well.
I have never been happier than I am now to end the class in Sivasana, that quiet, lie down and pretend you're dead pose at the end of class. Well, dead except for the bug that flew up my nose and got stuck halfway down the back of my throat. The teacher must think I'm convulsing. That's a sensation I can't quite describe.
This class will be given three more times while I'm here. I'm not sure if I will go. It depends on what time we all agree to go to breakfast. I guess I'm now officially in vacation mode.
I'm not hard to please, even as a vegetarian in a tourist spot. But there are a few things that will make me very happy. Put me on the menu. Acknowledge that I exist and that I lead a legitimate, honorable lifestyle. Give me flavor. Prepare and present my food with the same care as you do the other dishes. Give me something other than pasta and zucchini. That’s just a few requests. It seems pretty reasonable.
Tonight was a truly spectacular meal. I have been to the Screaming Eagle before, and I'm certainly glad that we came back. The dining room is striking. White walls with hanging white cloth banners dividing up the room into sections. Our waitress was Dutch. Very attentive, friendly, and helpful, but she was all about us and not about herself. I started my experience with a Bombay Sapphire martini with three of the most perfect olives. The appetizer I chose was a soft artichoke heart, warm, and creamy, buried under a mound of mixed greens and warm goat cheese, with a honey walnut dressing. The waitress winked at me when I ordered it. It was actually fun to eat. My entree was a stuffed Portobello mushroom. The cap was perfectly cooked, topped with a layer of steamed spinach, and on top of that a gratin filled with flecks of spinach as well. The cap sat on a bed of tarragon and truffle risotto. Each layer was a separate adventure of flavor that harmonized into a very satisfying mix of textures. It's apparent that each element was prepared with the utmost care. Even the balsamic reduction was artfully drawn on the plate. Three tomato rounds were grilled nicely, topped with just the right amount of oregano.
For dessert I passed on the chocolate ganache cake, and opted for a flight of three new Macallan Scotches. A perfect ending to a perfect meal.
The Screaming Eagle is at J.E. Irausquin Blvd. 228, Eagle Beach, Aruba.
My parents made me gay. I’m certain of it. As I look back on my life with them, I discover several clues that expose their blame. I’m ok with it. It’s just nice, finally, to be able to figure out exactly why I turned out this way. Here are the clues that I’ve found:
When I was four my sister thought it would be a good idea to put her little brother into one of her outfits. I don’t blame her for my gayness in the same way as I blame my parents. She was only six, after all, and hadn’t yet figured out the implications of crossdressing. On this particular day she put me in a cute little ruffled one piece she had, plopped a frilly little coordinating hat on my head, and dragged me downstairs to show to my parents her dolled up little sibling. They thought it was the funniest thing. But it was a good funny, not bad funny. It was the kind of funny like when you get melted marshmallow on your face when you make S’mores, not the uncomfortable funny like when you pee your pants. I think this dress up incident was a major factor in the next clue.
Soon after this, my mother started giving her old dresses to my sister to play dress up. Well, actually, I don’t remember her giving them to my sister, but simply leaving them in our play room in a box. You guessed it -- the dresses ended up on me somehow. And, you know, my parents never so much as flinched when they saw me in them. Nope. Not so much as a disapproving glance came from them. I confess that I haven’t worn a dress since I was about seven, but their tolerance for such behavior during my tender years must have pinked my color spectrum. I know it.
When I was eight they made me take piano lessons. At the age when I should have been outside learning how to play ball with the boys, I was inside practicing the piano. It was just such an excommunication from activities that would have solidified my straightness that must have caused permanent damage. So, not knowing much about sports, I was left to play dolls, and hopscotch, and Monopoly, and build forts in the woods, and rake leaves into pretend houses with the girls in my neighborhood. And we all know what that can do to a little boy!
When I was about eight my parents did something drastic that must have tipped the gay scales for me. The Cleveland Orchestra had just opened their summer home on the banks of the Cuyahoga River, the Blossom Music Center. I had been to concerts before, but they had never been as engaging and as much fun as this one that my parents subjected me to. The concert was conducted by the legendary and dynamic George Szell, and included the Overture 1812 by Tchaikovsky complete with fireworks bursting in the sky and cannon being shot from the surrounding hills, all timed to the exuberant music. This spectacle showed me that classical music was fun as well as serious. And also very gay. I think I knew that then. They also took me to see the Oberlin College Choir directed by Robert Fountain. I remember that concert vividly. The singers were having such a good time. And the conductor was very spirited, flailing his arms around, making demonstrative faces. It all seems so obviously gay to me now. It did, however, inspire me to want to direct choirs. And we all know how many gay choir directors there are!
In seventh grade when we had to pick a foreign language to study, they let me pick French! Nothing butch like Spanish. No. Or coarse and manly like German. No. I was destined for nasal vowels and Coq au Vin. And speaking of Coq, they let me learn how to cook, and grocery shop, and garden. My mother let me organize her pantry! What gayer thing could I have done as a little boy? And furthermore, I could bake better than most girls I knew. Such damage.
During those turbulent and formative college years my condoning parents let me bring a few of my boyfriends home with me on breaks. And they had the nerve to allow us to pal around. They even enjoyed it. Also, my parents were indulgent enough to tolerate my being involved in two or three long-term relationships. As I think back on them now, and as I suspect I knew all along, it would have been best if I had avoided these particular alliances. I remember once when I forced myself to tell my parents that I was “moving out” on one of them, my mother pulled me aside and whispered in my ear, “You didn’t have a falling out, did you? We like him.” Don’t worry; I’m not talking about the nineteen-year relationship I’m in now with my husband! This alliance I am glad I didn’t avoid. Through all of this coming and going of men, they never asked the question, and never judged me for the men I associated with. Hell, I never even told them that I was gay. I didn’t want them to suffer for their responsibility. They don’t deserve that. I took that suffering upon myself.
Ultimately, I have determined that my parents’ indiscretion must have led to my expressions of gayness in such things as becoming an organist, a choir director, a church musician, and a tap dancer, and becoming the gayest of all gay things a man can become, a yoga teacher! Now that’s gay.
I don’t harbor ill feelings toward my parents for their responsibility in all of this. No. Things could have been much worse. But it is a relief to know how such events that they encouraged could have led to my gayness. And such gayness it is! Oh, Mom and Dad.
I won’t declare Selfless September a failure. It wasn’t. It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. I did accomplish one thing, and it has had an impact on my overall health and wellbeing. I have stopped calling other drivers bad names while I drive. I still yell, a little, but a lot less than I ever have before. I say things like, “Let’s move it,” and, “Really? You had to cut in front of me?” But I have lost most of the urge to say terrible things about these other drivers. I feel better while I drive, and I’m in a better mood when I get where I’m going. I even feel better about the other drivers. The focus is off of them, and it’s on me and my driving. I feel like I’m more a part of a community of drivers than I feel like a maverick among fools. This feels permanent. I don’t want to go back to the old me. As for other ways of being selfless, I’ll take this as a step in the right direction, and hope that October can bring something even deeper. I could call it Obliging October, I suppose. Or Forgiving Fall. Any suggestions?
This is going to be a lot more difficult than I thought. I’m trying to act less selfishly for the month of September. It’s almost half way over and I’m not getting very far. When I drive I have stopped saying out loud nasty names for the people driving in front of me. So maybe that’s a major accomplishment. I still think them sometimes. And I did say a few things out loud to the people driving in front of me, but they weren’t terrible things, and certainly weren’t derogatory names. I said things like, “Someone’s got to go,” and, “Really?” So I have to say that I feel much better already. Not vocalizing nasty things has caused me to think them less. I still tailgate. Even if the driver in front of me is going the speed limit. I have to stop that. My intention is to be forgiving and to let people manage driving in their own way without me trying to change their behavior. I have a long way to go.
I’m going to take a month to explore something I’ll call “selflessness.” I’m not quite sure what that means. I mean, I still want to have a self. I don’t want to pretend that I’m not here. That’s not what I mean. But what I want to explore is the idea that I’m not the center of the universe. I like to think that things happen to me because people intentionally are doing things to make my life miserable. And not just New Jersey drivers, although that seems to be the place I encounter most of the above mentioned people. Dictionary.com defines “selfless” as: “having little or no concern for oneself, especially with regard to fame, position, money, etc.; unselfish.” I gave up on having fame in about 1989. Position? Wherever I am is a position, so that doesn’t count. Money isn’t something I ever thought I’d earn much of as a musician, and certainly not as a yoga teacher. So that leaves being unselfish. In general. In all actions.
During the month of September, I’m going to examine how I react to other people, and try to act in an unselfish way. When I drive I’m going to let people in. I will try to stop assuming that all other drivers are evil, and are out to drive in a way to intimidate me, insult me, and make me late for wherever I’m going. I will stop yelling out loud descriptions of the people driving in front of me who aren’t going as fast as I think they should. I’ll even try to stop thinking those descriptions. I’m going to be content in moving my car in a safe manner and see if I really do get to where I’m going on time. I’m going to try to live my life without thinking that everyone around me is judging me, or even paying attention to me. I’m going to assume that my encounters with others will be positive. I’m even going to look for other situations where I can be unselfish. At the end of the month I’ll see where I am and if my unselfish actions have had an impact on me in a good or not so good way.
Here’s to Selfless September. So far nothing’s much different. Yet.
This photo is of Nick, Joel, and Pedro serving up Vintage Subs.
I’m going to spend a lot of time here trying to convince myself that I went to Vintage Subs in Asbury Park today to eat lunch. Yes, that’s why I went there. To eat a sub. What could a vegetarian eat in a sub shop? Well, there are quite a few tasty things for me at Vintage Subs. I went there to look at some of them, and I also went there to get something to eat.
I’ve known the owners, Nick and Eddy, for years. Vintage Subs is on Cookman, right around the corner from where I teach yoga at Kur Wellness Studios. I’ve been to the place several times after classes, and I’ve always gotten the same thing, the Magic Garden Sub. More on that later. As soon as I walked into the shop my eyes met Pedro’s. He smiled at me as he was slicing meat behind the counter. I batted my eyes a few times as I said hello to him. He leaned across the counter and gave me a kiss. I also waved hello to the owner, Nick, in the back doing something I couldn’t see. Another handsome young man, Joel, came to the counter and asked me what I wanted. I hadn’t seen him there before. Pedro said to him, “He’ll have The Magic Garden.” As Joel prepared my sub I flirted shamelessly with Pedro and Nick.
I got a half Magic Garden sub to go: a whole wheat roll, pickled eggplant, and roasted red peppers. Joel asked me if I wanted lettuce, tomato, herbs, vinegar, and oil. I said, “Of course! It wouldn’t be a sub without them.” He said that the eggplant was pickled, so the vinegar might not be a good idea. I said that was wise, but that I wanted hot peppers. I had a choice of jalapeños, banana peppers, or pepper paste. I chose pepper paste.
When the sandwich was ready Nick put it in a bag and asked me if I wanted anything else. I said, “Don’t I get a pickle?” He said, “Of course.” Pedro said, “Cut or uncut?” “Uncut,” I sheepishly answered. The pickle was huge. I brought the sub home to eat. It was really good. Quite hot, and a bit pickley. Quite hot, indeed. My head was sweating from the hot peppers. It was great.
I love going to Vintage Subs. I go for the food. Really, I do. They deliver to the beach. I think you can get a free beach ball if you have your subs delivered. You can certainly look forward to any of these three handsome men showing up on the beach with a delicious meal and a beach ball.
Vintage Subs is at 725 Cookman Avenue, Asbury Park, NJ
I love a new experience, especially when eating out. I love trying new foods, new ways of cooking favorite foods, interesting combinations of familiar foods, and different ways to use spices and herbs to flavor foods. I also love familiar things. I can go to a restaurant ten times and get the same thing each time.
Sometimes all of these things seem to happen at once at one restaurant. I had a pleasant combination of these the other day at the Twisted Tree Café in Asbury Park. I had heard of the place because of their vegetarian offerings, but I had never been there. On a Friday right after I had taught yoga at Kur Wellness Studios on Bond Street I headed down the street toward Cookman. I thought about turning right to go to the sub shop, but something pulled me left. I saw a few tables on the sidewalk down the block, so I went to check out what was there. It was Twisted Tree. So I went in. It looked like a fun place. You walked up to the counter at the edge of the kitchen and ordered what you saw on the blackboard menu overhead. There was a sign dangling down with their soup of the day: Coconut Curry. I had to have it. I also ordered the Bean Wrap. I asked the woman behind the counter what it was. She told me that they drained their chili and made a wrap out of it. I was intrigued. I asked her if it was vegetarian. The chef, who was right next to her, said that all of their soups were vegan. Even better, I thought.
The soup was out of this world. It appeared to be a spicy curry broth with chickpeas, peppers, and tomatoes. I was truly excited while I ate it. I was so excited I took the empty bowl up to the counter and asked if they ever gave out the recipe. The woman giggled and said, “I wish.” The chef kind of rolled his eyes at me and turned back to his work.
The wrap was an open tortilla with the above mentioned chili, avocado, what appeared to be canned tomatoes, corn, and black beans. A salad was also on the plate with a side of tahini dressing. The chili was almost exactly how I made mine, except for the corn. After the unique soup experience, this familiarity was welcome. As I ate it I also noticed for the first time how similar my chili is to how I remember my mother's. Well, except for the ground beef.
So this excellent pairing of the exotic and the familiar made for a great lunch. And sitting in the sun on the sidewalk watching the local Asbury Parkers was fun, too.
The Twisted Tree Café is at 609 Cookman Ave, Asbury Park, NJ
On the last night of this leg of the tour, the 18 people in the group I'm traveling with had a dinner arranged by the tour company at a local pub. Local, I guess, as in the same city. It was at least a half hour walk from the hotel. But shockingly it wasn't raining, and the city is incredibly beautiful, so walk we did, through the bustling city streets of amazing architecture, to the Scottish pub, Ghillie Dhu. The building is a very interesting mix of stone, spiral staircases, and modern details. We all sat in several booths, ordered drinks, and soon got served some potato leek soup. We had only heard rumors about the food, that it would be fish. I and the other vegetarian on this leg were assured that they knew to give us something else. However several others were heard complaining to the waitstaff that they didn't eat fish, or were allergic to the shellfish stuffing. I overheard one waiter tell one of the complainers that they couldn't possibly make any more vegetarian dishes since only two had been ordered by the tour company. I felt bad that not eating animals can be such a hassle. But in the end everyone got what they wanted.
My entree was a delicious pastry stuffed with broccoli, carrots, onions, sweet potatoes, artichokes, and just the right amount of tomato sauce. Over the top was what I believe to be what the other restaurant turned into glue - a delicious white sauce. On the side was a pile of, what else, potatoes. I was very happy, especially considering the complaints I heard about the fish.
Dessert was a fantastic cup of cream and tart raspberries. I left thinking that the bulk of the people would have been happier with any restaurant closer to the hotel. On the walk back we took the low road through the beautiful gardens at the foot of the castle.
I will definitely be back to this spectacular city, but probably not to this restaurant.
The Ghillie Dhu is at 2 Rutland St, Edinburgh
Sometimes it just happens. Every once in a great while there is a rare combination of chance, good luck, surprise, and delight. Tonight was one of those nights. We got to Edinburgh at dinner hour with the evening free. The same four of us from the Dublin adventure set out from the oddly fun Ibis Hotel in the heart of the old city, rounded a corner, and headed down a street lined with stunning old ornate buildings. Not a block from the hotel we found The Outsider. The three-story restaurant is a combination of old and new, wood and glass, formal and very informal. A handsome young man showed us to a table right in the center of the airy restaurant, with a view out huge windows onto the rooftops of Edinburgh, somewhat reminiscent of a scene from Mary Poppins.
Not long after we sat down our waiter, Reuben, gallivanted to our table asking for drink orders. Reuben is a cute young Scot in black jeans and a shaggy shirt, sporting a slight scruff of beard. He brought us a Montepulciano just in time for us to order food. The four of us shared skewers of sesame-crusted aubergine (eggplant), courgette fritters (zucchini), peppers, haloumi (high melting point cheese), za'atar(spice), and an orange yogurt sauce. It didn't last long. It was very tasty.
We had just finished the appetizer when I noticed Reuben sitting up against a woman customer on a bench seat, helping her and her dining companion with the menu. Too bad I was sitting in a chair, I thought. After I had had just a few more sips of wine, Reuben and two other wait staff brought our diners.
I had reluctantly ordered gnocchi. At our last dinner in Dublin at the hotel the only vegetarian entree was gnocchi. Unfortunately, not only was the gnocchi just passable, it was in a cream sauce. The color was bright white, and the texture was of semi-dried Elmer's Glue. It made swallowing difficult. So when I looked down at my plate at the Outsider, I was not only pleased, but also surprised and intrigued. The gnocchi were pan fried with pesto, spinach, and rosemary. But most interesting was the shape. They were long and thick rectangular sticks, fried to a dark brown. At first I thought they were French fries. The extra thick kind. Now that would have been different. When I cut into one and tasted it, they were indeed gnocchi, just formed into the long shapes and fried perfectly. The texture was splendid. The sauce was very tasty with a shaving of Romano cheese on top and several sprigs of watercress. It was one of those unexpected exciting dining moments that don't come often enough.
After dinner it was time for dessert. We were in Scotland, so I decided to have a Scotch. I beckoned Reuben over to my side and coyly told him, "I'm all for new experiences." He squatted down, nuzzled his knee into my leg, leaned onto the table with his arm pressing against mine, and scanned the menu. I showed him three or four single malts on the menu that I liked, but asked him if there was something there I hadn't had that he would recommend. He selected the Springbank 15, and winked at me as he assured me that I'd like it. I did. It was a satisfying end to an exciting meal.
The Outsider Restaurant is at 15 George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, Scotland.
I get enough to eat. Really, I do. I’m not one to starve. Right now I'm in Dublin traveling with a group of 75 Americans. There just happen to be two other vegetarians in the group. It’s great. I don't feel so alone. Last night the whole group went out to a large facility for a traditional Irish meal and entertainment. There were four options for entrees on the menu: roast beef and lots of potatoes and vegetables, cod and lots of vegetables, salmon with a mound of vegetables, and an Asian stir fry. With all of the traditions of the Irish for cooking vegetables this place came up with a stir fry with soy and oyster sauce. I found that very interesting. The worst part was watching all my dining companions chowing down on a big hunk of animal flesh, a mound of roasted potatoes, carrots, and broccoli. I got a small dish with a few noodles, a couple of onion squares, and one or two pieces of pepper. That's it. Good thing I had the soup and two or three glasses of Jameson.
So today we had the afternoon free. I checked online and found a Mediterranean restaurant listed near the hotel. Four of us ventured out for a late lunch. To my delight we came upon Keshk Café Restaurant just down the street, along a lovely canal. While I sipped black tea with milk, we sampled two appetizers: the moistest dolmadas I've ever had:
"Stuffed vine leaves, topped with fragrant basmati rice, fresh parsley, onion, mixed spice, lemon juice and olive oil. Cooked in tomato sauce with yoghourt on the side," and very tasty falafel - "...with secret spices." Perfect.
My entree was Okra (or gumbo): "Okra and fresh coriander cooked in a tomato and garlic sauce."
Small pods of okra were lovingly bathed in a spicy, smooth tomato sauce. I was thrilled. Instead of yet another bowl of white rice on the side I opted for potatoes. Hey, I'm in Ireland. Why not? They know potatoes, right? The waitress asked if I wanted them plain or spicy. You know what I said. Spice and Ireland weren't two things I would have put together, but then again, neither were Ireland and palm trees. But they are everywhere here. What came was a bowl of potato chunks with garlic, pepper flakes, and parsley. I dipped them in the chili sauce served with the meat dishes. Good choice.
The owner came to our table to thank us. He's Egyptian, and cooks a combination of Greek, Turkish, and North African styles. He was genuinely sad to hear that we are leaving for Scotland tomorrow morning.
After dinner we had a fun conversation with the waitress. She shyly asked us where we were from. She no longer assumed we were American after an embarrassing encounter with some Canadians. She also asked us if we had seen the Scots in kilts. Apparently we were very near some rugby fields. Recently Ireland had played Scotland. The visitors had worn kilts. I asked if the players wore them to play Rugby. She replied that she wished they had, and that it had been a very windy day.
Keshk Café Restaurant is at 71 Mespil Road, Dublin.
I'm traveling with a group through Ireland. I worried before we left that there would be little choice for a vegetarian. I imagined eating potatoes for twelve days. I could always drown my sorrows in Guinness, right? Well, I've been here for five days. I have had some rather interesting potato dishes and a bit of Guinness. Most hotel dinners so far have had one vegetarian option, never on the menu, and always pasta. Even at lunch the options in local pubs have been pasta, potatoes, sometimes in the same meal, soup, often potato based, and salad. At one pub I was able to get a toasted cheese sandwich. They do have really good whole-grain bread here.
Today we are in Kilkenny, Ireland. We have the afternoon free, so Joe and I started walking around the downtown area of this pretty, medieval city looking for a place for lunch. Something drew me down High Street, just across a beautiful river bridge near our hotel. After passing several cafes, pubs, and Kilkenny’s only yoga studio, I happened to notice a little green restaurant with a menu out front. The word "vegetarian" popped out at me. I think I had found Kilkenny's only vegetarian-friendly restaurant.
I ordered green tea and the Potato-lentil cakes. It came with a delicious salad with chopped up peppers and a tasty dressing. The cakes were thick and hot. They had a tender texture because of the potatoes, but held together until I could dip each bite into a vinegary caponata sauce. They also had a nice caraway flavor to them. I was in veggie heaven. It was just nice to eat something not pasta or zucchini based. If you don't know me by now, I hate zucchini.
We were sitting next to a couple with a toddler. The mother turned to us and said in a non-Irish accent,"That's not a local accent. Where are you guys from?" She was from British Columbia, Canada. Her husband was local. We had a delightful chat along with our delightful lunch.
The Fig Tree Brunch Restaurant is at 20 High Street, Kilkenny, Ireland.
Time for a change of pace.
I know what you must be thinking after you read the title of this post. Two muscled bodies glistening with sweat, in an animated, intimate dance, each one out doing the other in feats of flexibility and agility. So let that thought pass for a moment. It’s a common thought, but one that may prove only to be a momentary distraction from the real subject at hand.
There is a teaching in yoga called brahmacharya, often translated as continence. Some see it as celibacy. Others see it as restraint. In all of my studies in yoga, I have not come across anyone seriously engrossed in what we call yoga to relate brahmacharya in any way to a moral condemnation of sex. It is said that the teaching relates more to wisdom than to morality. If one’s attention is given over often to the release of sexual energy, and let’s admit that one’s attention can be drawn to that subject often, what time or energy would one have for much else? So this principle of restraint is more about retaining energy and spending it wisely. Often that wisdom draws our attention to many productive things that would be lost during a fixation on sex. In fact, a prohibition against sex could fuel that fixation more than fire a productive burst of wisely spent energy.
Because of the reputation of this principle, many people might dismiss ancient yoga teachings as antiquated, preferring a more permissive attitude toward sex. Others may dismiss the mere mention of sex out of fear and embarrassment, preferring not to discuss or even ponder the subject at all. However, the principle seeks neither to promote nor prohibit the topic, merely to instill in the yogi wisdom about its expression.
Yoga and sex naturally go together. Picture a room full of sweaty, mostly naked bodies, twisting and stretching. Picture a young, inexperienced yogi nestled close to an older, wiser teacher, as the master presses against his faltering body, both forms easing deeply into a pose. Let’s be honest for a moment. How about a proposal? An overture from a student. A suggestion that an experienced yogi would make a good lover. Truth? In my mind I see one fairly passive body and one very active. I see one partner getting very tired in the pursuit of the other’s pleasure. It doesn’t sound romantic or enticing to me. Let’s be realistic for a lot longer. Can yoga make sex better? Not if it isn’t good to begin with. What yoga can do is open up the possibility for better health, and better acceptance of where one is with the body as it is. What an understanding of brahmacharya might bring is the wisdom to know when sexual expression might prove to be beneficial and when it might cause more harm than good.
In the words of a very respected writer on yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar, in Light on Yoga, “When one is established in brahmacharya, one develops a fund of vitatlity and energy, a courageous mind and a powerful intellect so that one can fight any type of injustice. The brahmachri will use the forces he generates wisely… Brahmacharya is the battery that sparks the torch of wisdom.”
Back over the summer I took a look at my goatee and decided it was time to let it get a bit of length. The problem with that area of my beard is that most of the white is there. But I thought it was time to accept it as a normal part of my aging and go with it. By September it was the longest my beard had been in several years. It was a sizeable puff of white billowing out of my chin. Just after Thanksgiving I started letting the full beard grow. I don’t know if that was for aesthetic reasons, or because I’m lazy and prefer to shave as little as possible. It was around then that I came up with the idea of using my beard for a cause. I had recently attended the Ocular Melanoma Foundation Patient Retreat at the Cleveland Clinic. It was a wonderful time meeting other people with this rare disease. As a matter of fact, it was the largest gathering of people with ocular melanoma ever. We met doctors and researchers and found out about the latest treatments and protocols. There’s not a lot of attention given to this orphan disease because so few people are affected by it, but it was great to see that someone was doing something.
I worked with the Foundation and my web designer, Bonnie, to set up a campaign to raise money for the Foundation and awareness of the disease. If you go to http://becomingsoundyoga.com/LIG/, you can donate any amount of money in one of two places. One for “Let it Grow,” and one for “Let it Go.” On March 3, 2015 at noon, if more money has been donated to OMF through "Let It Grow," I will commit to let my already rather lengthy beard grow until at least Jan. 1, 2016. If more money has been donated to OMF "Let It Go," I will shave it off and buzz my moustache and head down to #0. I will post a video of this on my YouTube channel. I was diagnosed at noon on March 3rd, 2008. This will be an interesting way of celebrating that milestone.
I don’t know how well I will be able to function if my beard grows until January. I get enough grief now as it is from people. But now, every time someone complains or asks me how long I’m going to let it grow, I can direct them to my website and say, “Put your money where your mouth is.” If I have to shave it off, I might be a bit sad, too. I’ve gotten kind of used to it. It does get a lot of attention. It’s surprising that some people, who usually don’t say anything to me at all, will say a lot to me about my beard. It’s also surprising to hear some of the things they say.
Beards can be fun. They can also get in the way. They make eating and drinking a bit more of a challenge. If I have to get rid of it I can always grow it back, but I think I’m going to miss it. Yup, I’m going to miss it.
I've never had anyone hold a gun to my head. I don't profess to know exactly what that feeling is like. I can only imagine that moment of terror when you realize that someone, in a split second, could pull the trigger and end your life. You probably wouldn't have much time to even notice the event. It would just happen and your awareness would end, or so I imagine.
But what if that same threat of death were to unfold much more slowly? What if it were as if there were a gun to your head but you didn't know it was a gun? What if you saw someone standing over you and you saw they had something in their hand, but you couldn't make out what it was or exactly what danger it held for you, if any?
I'm sitting in the waiting room in the Oncology Service, the whole fourteenth floor of Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia. The sign on the outside of the building said, "America's First. World's Best." I guess it’s comforting that the figure standing over you is the best in the world at whatever it is that they are going to do to you.
It's always a harrowing ride into Philly. The trek from 95 to the Ben Franklin Bridge spits in the face of the sleek sixteen lanes of the newly opened truck and car lanes on the Jersey Turnpike. To go from that free-flowing, open road(well except for the idiot from New York who had to cut in front of me in the left lane then tap his brakes because I was too close to him, which took all of my effort to disregard his wickedness) to the spaghetti of road changes and lane shifts, left exits and right exits, on strip-mall-clogged local roads just for the distinct pleasure of crossing the Ben Franklin bridge only to then attempt to navigate the cluster that's called the entrance to the City of Brotherly Love is stressful, to say the least.
I first came here in March of 2008. That was a Jersey Turnpike time of life. In 2007 I got a Civil Union with my husband, Joe, on a boat circling NYC. A few months before that I had been seeing random flashes of light in my lower right eye. I thought little of that, probably because in September of 2006 I had jabbed the arm of sunglasses into that eye, bruising the iris. I thought it was just residual effects from that. February of 2008 saw several concerts, a wonderful convention with friends in Hartford, and an extremely fun cabaret of songs written for women sung by men. Yeah, we did "Cell Block Tango." I even sang "Special" from Avenue Q. It was a free-flowing, fast-paced time. The flashes continued.
On Monday, February 25th, I went to a regular check up with my optometrist, Gina. Everything looked good. I almost didn't remember the flashes. But at the end of the visit I told her about them. She said, "Oh," in a way that's like making a U-Turn on the Turnpike going 85 and heading up the truck lanes going the wrong way. She looked and looked in my eye until I was blind from the lights. She said, "I don't see anything, but I'm going to have a retina specialist take a look just to make sure." She made the appointment for me. It was for the next day.
In the retina specialist's office they poked, pried, flashed, and put such bright lights in my eye that I felt my whole head get hot. After what seemed like hours, the doctor said that I had a freckle in my eye. He said that it was small and probably nothing. He suggested that I go to Wills Eye Hospital so that they could take more detailed pictures and watch it for changes. He said that sometimes, but very rarely, they could develop into melanoma, but that was unlikely. They made the appointment for me for Monday, March 3rd.
My husband couldn't get off of work that day since it was such short notice. I got my friend Brian to take me. I had never heard of Wills, let alone known that it was such a world-renowned eye hospital. Little did I know that the top floor was run by two of the world’s best ocular oncologists. I encountered people there who had flown in from around the world to see these doctors. If I thought I had seen bright lights before, I was mistaken. They poked more, held my eye open, put goop on it and took a sonogram, took pictures with flashes of light that were so bright my whole body instantly started to sweat. They numbed my eye and took a wide-angle scan where the lens actually sits on the surface of the eye. What a wild light show that was. I saw more doctors, each of whom had to look in my eye more deeply and for longer than the previous one had. Wills is a teaching hospital, so there we doctors and assistant doctors, each of whom had a train of interns who had to look, too.
I was waiting in a fairly dark room for quite a while. I heard a flurry of activity in the hall and then a lot of whispering. It was Dr. Carol Shields, the director, and unknown to me, one of the, if not the, leading experts in ocular melanoma. She floats down the hall on a puff of wind made by the interns who study to gain a bit of her expertise. To me she seemed like a tennis player. Muscular. Athletic. Blunt. Direct. The door opened. She looked at me, well, as much as I could tell in the dark, and said, "We think you're going to be alright."
Was that the gun in her hand? Did she pull the trigger to let out a slow-motion bullet that might hit me in a month, a year? Would I die a normal death before the bullet shattered my skull?
That moment was like you're standing in Times Square. Everything goes silent. Then the lights and buildings start to shift and move around you. Then you're facing the total opposite side of the square. Or are you?
What? That's all I remember. What. Melanoma? She was pretty sure that the tumor(tumor? What happened to freckle?) in my eye was melanoma. What was I doing Thursday?
As I look back, that moment was like coming off the subway uptown, getting up the stairwell, getting turned around until you can't tell if you're walking on a sidewalk uptown, downtown, or on a street heading west. Or maybe it's east.
I went into the hospital Thursday, March 6 to be treated with brachytherapy, where a radioactive plaque was sewn to my eye, left in for five days, then removed. I couldn't leave the hospital room. Fortunately I was an hour from home. I had many visitors, well over the limit of two at a time! I felt bad for the patients in the rooms next to mine who flew in and had no visitors. I couldn't even visit them myself.
So far the bullet is still in the air. I have what's called Choroidal melanoma. Cancer of the eye is very rare. Six per million get it every year. Half of those diagnosed die from it. There aren't a lot of statistics since it's so rare, but I estimate that when I was diagnosed I had a seventy percent chance of being dead in a couple of years. Once it metastasizes, people usually live about seven months. I'm almost seven years out and still here. Today's visit is once a year to see how the tumor is shrinking and to take more pictures. The lights will be bright, but maybe today I'll get the cute tech with the beard. The really scary visit will be in February with the melanoma specialist. That will involve the scans to see my lungs and liver. The time leading up to that will be a couple anxious months, then the scans, then then the results. We call that "scanziety." Sounds like another post about that.
What helps? Breathing. I don't know how I'd get through all of it without yoga. Maybe the world would have spun more. Maybe I'd be like the New York driver. Maybe I'd be so shaken I'd have just stayed home, but for now at least, I'm still on the highway.
Is it death we fear? Is it the unknown? I won't profess to know what happens when we die. I can’t say for sure whether our consciousness lives on, or whether the body lives on as well. I don’t know if death is the end. I do know that there's a connection between living beings. Whether our minds make the connection, or whether our consciousness is connected to others in ways we can't see or understand, I delight in pondering the things that connect me to others.Call it coincidence. Call in synchronicity. Call it ESP. Call it intuition. Call it whatever force you want to call it. I believe we fear the loss of connection more than we fear death.
I believe that for everyone there is one person, usually a relative, that we are connected to more deeply than all others. Perhaps this just happens at birth. Maybe they are assigned to us. Maybe we pick them in some subconscious way. Mine is my grandmother, Ruth. As far back as I can remember my connection to her has been deep. She lived in Florida, and I usually saw her only once a year. But that didn't matter. She always called me Steven instead of Steve. Maybe she knew I would prefer it when I grew up. Maybe she's the reason I do prefer it. She's the one who made a big deal of my 7/11 birthday that I carry with me to this day. Between us there was always an understanding that we never had to speak about.
She died in 1986. But the loss had happened earlier. She never seemed to recover from the loss of my grandfather. After he died she just wasn't able to communicate in the same way. But I still felt the connection. After she died I would see the number 711 and feel her presence all the more. It was after her death that I started asking people to call me Steven. Not only do I prefer it, but every time I hear someone call my name I think of her. I will always feel her presence. It is because of it that I can fear less. It is because of her connection that I know I will maintain one with others no matter what.
On the second day of the cruise, my suite mate Brian and I went to the Friends of Dorothy meeting in the Champagne Bar. This is a way that gay men used to advertise meetings on cruises in the days when we didn't want the straight people to know we were gay and wanted to meet each other, as if they wouldn't have figured it out had they happened upon the location. Or in the case of a recent incident, I heard about a woman who came to the meeting as advertised on her ship because she thought it was a Wizard of Oz trivia game. She was, shall we say, vocally not happy with all of the gay men there. Anyway, at this first meeting, we met a couple from Utah. One of them is a massage therapist. They were traveling with friends. One of these friends was also a massage therapist. I was telling them about the yoga class on the helipad and that it would be the next morning as well. They both agreed to go since they had each done yoga before.
This morning at 7:45 they met me in the gym. The class of about 20 went out onto the helipad with Matja, the teacher from Monday. The class was almost exactly the same as Monday's. That was okay. It was especially enjoyable to practice next to new friends.
After class, while people were leaving the helipad, I asked the teacher if I could have a picture taken on the big H in the center of the pad. He said it would be fine. So the male therapist took my phone and I did a few forearm stands. Yes, it was a bit egotistical of me, yet again, but as I said before, perhaps it will be inspiration to someone. And it will look nice here in this post.
The truth is, you can do yoga anywhere. Sometimes the location is inspiring. Sometimes the location just fades into the background and you focus inside your own body so much you forget where you are. You don't need a mat, special clothes, experience, or even a teacher. So get practicing.
Today we took a very interesting taxi ride to Magans Bay Beach. It's a very beautiful beach, but it seemed like every ship passenger from the four cruise ships in port today were crammed on a narrow segment of beach. Screaming kids. Fighting husbands and wives. I decided to take a walk with my husband to a rather deserted end near some rocks where the overriding sound was gentle waves and pelicans diving into the water. We took a few pictures of each other. Other couples were posing for each other in and out of the water.
I love posting yoga pictures of myself. I know there's an element of ego in the yoga selfie and I fight with that. But I also know that disseminating pictures of an aging man doing yoga could inspire other aging men to give this journey we call yoga a try. So I couldn't resist. I asked my husband to take a few pictures of me doing inversions in the sand. It was fun. Little did I know that coming up the beach were two brothers from Toronto. The older one, about 60, came up to me and said, "My brother says that anything you can do, you can do better, eh?" Up walks his brother, a very fit looking man in his fifties, who proceeds to hoist himself up into a handstand, an held it there for about a minute while his brother took a video. I told him how impressed I was, since I can do a handstand, but I can't hold it for more than a few seconds.
I was glad I did the pics, otherwise I doubt the four of us would have had the interesting conversation about yoga, and aging, and other things. Tomorrow is the airport beach. Now, if I can just get a pic of me in Half Moon with a jet flying a few feet over my head...
I hate sports. I've always hated sports. I hated gym class. I hated gym class because I hate sports. I hate sports because I never learned to play them well. But there’s more on that in another post.
I was on a bowling league about thirteen years ago. I started out pretty bad. I got much better. I think my average was up around 120 or 130. I often bowled games around 150 to 160. My highest game was 218. It was always a mind game though. I'd bowl a really good game then I'd start overthinking everything I was doing, or start worrying that I'd once again bowl embarrassingly as I had at the start, then bowl a 90. I started up again with a bowling league over the summer. I did pretty well, but still it was the same up and down. The league was going to continue in the fall. I started to bowl worse and worse. I decided not to join the fall league, but I got talked into it. I continued my downward spiral. I wasn't having fun. Each game got worse and worse. During a conversation about it with a friend he said, "But aren't you doing it to have fun?"
That Friday I started to bowl. I kept saying to myself, "Fun. This is fun." I also talked more to my fellow bowlers. Especially the ones I didn't know. I bowled a pretty good first game. I tried not to overthink it. During the second game I got two doubles. The third game was even better. I talked the whole night (yes, rather than taking out my phone). I focused on the skills I had learned early on in that first league. I decided not to pre-bowl for the two Fridays I would miss for vacation. The points I would have gained by pre-bowling didn't matter. I was there to have fun. Besides, I had gotten a trophy after the summer league for high scratch game. The thought of me winning a trophy in a sport involving a ball is beyond my imagination. I'm still on the league. I can't say I'm bowling well, but I am having fun. I got a new ball. We will see what happens.