Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Highly Favored or Highly Delusional?

Religion. One of the more touchy subjects that I occasionally touch with full understanding that most people do not know what they are talking about and merely ape, or mimic that which was taught to them ever since the days of their infancy.  At least that was the case with me.  I have always been a curious observer in trying to determine to what extent being religious, or believing in baby Jesus, could benefit.  The benefit is the key as is how to assess the value of the benefit.

Some say if you believe in baby Jesus all your prayers will be answered, that he will be on your side and will "look out" for you in your time of need...almost as compensation for your decision to believe.  For example, I recall my final home track meet of my senior year in high school.  I was on the runway getting mentally prepared for my final jump in triple jump as I was a foot behind my nemesis from St. Albans School in DC.  As I felt a cool breeze that Spring afternoon I began to pray, asking for strength to overcome and win as I always had against this guy.  Third graders from my school lined up near the sand pit awaiting my landing, anticipating another amazing jump by Showtime, which was my nickname at my school ever since I was in the sixth grade. I felt at peace, a kind of serenity that washes over you once you have accepted all fates considering you have done all you could to perform at your best.

I ended up breaking the school record and winning that event at the same time.  Now, I was never a bible thumper nor did I ever claim that I was Christian.  But I attributed my victory and unprecedented triple leap to God, of course because "without Him none of this would be possible".  But is that necessarily true?  You often hear stars and athletes echo the same sentiments whenever they win awards.  They first thank the Lord above, or some like Serena Williams thank Jehovah.  Your friends and family may attribute all their success to Jesus, and would be the first to point you in the direction of their success or wealth or prominent social status as results of belief.  Many pastors preach what is known as "the prosperity gospel", a religious Christian doctrine that financial blessings are the will of God for Christians who faithfully attend church, donate regularly and substantially to church offering plates (even if the plate is passed around thrice in one service), and who share the good news of baby Jesus.  The thinking is that if Christians have faith, then God will follow through like a contract and deliver financial security.  Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen and Bishop TD Jakes are among the evangelists who preach such Gospel.  But I want to take aim at this nonsense, not so much from a biblical perspective but just based in common sense as I am aware there is no reliable Bible verse or commandment or direction from Jesus to give money as tithes as guarantee for rewards.

All one needs to do is take a look at Christians who profit, who do well, yet whose actions scream they are nonbelievers...the hypocrites.  After all, why would God follow through on a contract to provide financial blessings upon those who contradict basic Christian doctrine?  So, my favorite rats to shine light on in this regard are Christian slavemasters, those who brought the first shipment of Africans over in a ship called JESUS.

These men were self-proclaimed Christians, as all Christians are.  They bought, sold, traded, raped, killed, molested, lynched, castrated and forcefully converted Africans on a daily basis, for centuries.  Slavery was a HUGE BUSINESS and accounts for much of the reason why the United States is as wealthy a nation as it is, slaves being the first commodity traded on Wall Street.  Using this "highly favored" mindset, one could easily infer that these slimy white people were BLESSED by God, that God rewarded such evil behavior. The Bible itself was used to put Africans through regular spiritual waterboarding; the religion was used as a weapon, verses being quoted, geared towards destruction of African souls.  Since to these beasts slavery was sanctioned by God, proof of said sanction came in the form of freedom...freedom to continue abusing human beings for so long, and with God's blessing, further buttressed by God providing financial security as well as immunity from prosecution.

I disagree. I do not see these half-men as highly favored no matter how much they made off the blood sweat and tears of Africans.  Hence, I cannot look at wealth or social status alone in determining whether or not God is on anyone's side per se.  For all we know God is at best an impotent overseer, as Bishop Desmond Tutu suggested, in which case everything we do, whether we succeed or fail, depends in large part on what other humans allow here on earth.  People win elections often via poll tricks, or buying their way into office - God plays no role (unless God plays role in evil too, as God did as he made a wager with the Devil to test Job...an odd wager if I say so myself).  Others often win awards based on politics - God played no role in Halle Berry winning an Oscar for her performance in Monster's Ball.  And God, who ostensibly hovers over and concerns Himself with the entire galaxy, is not at all rewarding any little comparably insignificant human being on Earth for good behavior, or good thoughts, or good donations in church offerings (especially if the married pastor, unbeknownst to the congregation, is fondling boys and committing adultery with women in the pews).  Stop the madness people!

However, there are those who simply prefer being humble if not delusional, who prefer deflecting attention or credit from having achieved something special; accolades may make them uncomfortable or they simply acknowledge all those who helped in the process since we never accomplish anything alone.  So, the next time you hear someone say they are "highly favored" based on something positive that happened in their lives, be sure to share the story of others who have accomplished greater greatness while being evil and that special feeling should dissipate.

The only people in my view who are HIGHLY FAVORED are those who are relentless when it comes to helping the poor and who do so without conscious thought and without seeking/accepting reward.  Those who take time out of their daily lives to make life happier or more manageable for others who suffer are the ones who are blessed.  Stay Blessed folks, and stop thinking of your highly favored SELF, when so many others need help and acknowledgment.  #Matthew5:1-12


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Straight Understanding Sexuality

Let's just say I am no expert on this matter but remain observant and understanding in all areas of people activity.  And this is a controversial topic so please know this is one man's opinion, feel free to develop your own in agreement or rebuttal to my presentation.  Sexuality as a young male was always about women and rejection of all things gay, gay things of course never being anywhere in sight and being frowned upon.  In that sense, NYers had me beat. Hell, New York City in my house was known as Sodom and Gomorrah.

"Bitch ass faggot!"

"Suck my dick, bitch!"

"Gay ass bastid!"

"You sound gay!"

"You can tell he gay by the way he walkin!"

"She's a carpet muncher"

"Homosexuality is an abomination that causes desolation!"

"Sodom & Gomorrah was destroyed because of homosexuality!"

"If the whole world were gay the human race would go extinct."

The above statements many hear today on the streets or in churches or homes, but all of these ignorant utterances I have often heard growing up, some I have said myself thinking words never hurt, only sticks and stones.  These extremely harsh words represent social conditioning, a reflection of a myopic understanding of homosexuality for all of my childhood and early adult life.  I have never thumped a Bible against anyone or anything, and neither did Jesus but I digress (Amen!).  Yet and still in my mind it was wrong, unnatural and my young male mind was convinced it was not manly.  Today it's no big deal to me, although I still cannot engage in sexual conversations explicitly gay in nature.  But this is not an interest of mine.  I do not agree with homosexuality as a lifestyle or behavior FOR ME. I distinctly recall being attracted to my first grade teacher Ms. Whitaker (my early Miss Parker for my Cube and Chris Tucker fans of FRIDAY) and my mother found naked pictures of women in my room at age 12.  My disagreement with homosexuality has no impact on how I view gay people.  It only impacts me and my preferences.  I cannot comprehend disagreeing with what someone else wants to do, so long as I am not directly impacted in vulgar and/or negative ways.  But as with all readers, my views have roots.

For seven years before college I attended a conservative all boys private day school...which just so happened to be set in a wealthy and very white area of Maryland.  Kids there called me gay in jest because I refused to join them in communal showers after the first several football practices, at age 12.  I replied in jest that maybe they were gay for wanting me there.  I do not recall knowing an openly gay student, but plenty were bullied or teased as is sadly typical among kids. And "gay" was hurled when boys were not "tough".

In my all black neighborhood in PG County, MD there was talk of about one or two guys who people thought were "flamin", and I can recall only one that was open about her liking girls as a high school student.  She played basketball with us fellas at times.  In my community "fag" or "bitch" or "gay" were also thrown at any male viewed as weak, or scared or who lacked courage.  Homosexuality was frowned upon, disrespected and rejected as it was if the subject came up on the news in my house.  It was not popular back then, unless people hid it.  I didn't even have cable until college so access to shows or programs or movies or anything covering homosexuality was nil.  At home, in my neighborhood and at school, homosexuality was seen as "sweet, soft, weak" for the most part and never a topic of discussion, unless recklessly insulting someone.  I had no family members who were gay that I knew or heard of, but when Rock Hudson died of AIDS in 1985 we associated the disease with homosexuals.  I was not even in high school then.  And in late 1991 Magic Johnson announced his newly discovered HIV status and we saw the disease could not only touch the openly gay community, but also the outwardly heterosexual.

Enter college just a few years later.  I was not as intimately involved in the college research process.  My basketball coach, who also wore the college counselor hat, followed my advice to find a great small school, with a high percentage of minorities...similar to my school but just much darker. I was maybe one of four black students in my high school class of 60.  Hell, any college would have been just fine.  I was hard pressed to study in a coed environment as I hadn't studied alongside the opposite sex since elementary school. So I researched a little, but never visited the university.  I knew it was considered a small ivy league institution and one of the most diverse in the nation.  I needed some spice in my academic life so I chose "diversity university" and was shocked at Orientation.

They had us watching "The Crying Game", a movie I had never heard of before college orientation, that day when I almost lost my mind during the scene where a man and woman are passionately kissing in her home, their first intimate moment.  She leaves the bathroom and approaches the bed where he reclines.  He kisses her and politely asks her if he could undress her and she agrees.  He kisses her right shoulder as they face each other.  His clothes are still on, they embrace and he starts removing her nightgown as the camera angle shifts to his back facing us.  His head lowers and the woman now faces the camera revealing a man's chest and the next thing you know, after the guy falls back on the bed in shock, the woman stands there with a limp penis just chillin.  Her first response after he was clearly taken aback was,  "I thought you knew!"  He vomited in the bathroom, pushes her and ran away.  The rest of the movie deals with a love they eventually rekindle i think. But that scene threw me off guard so I likely did not pay much attention to the rest.  The take home lesson was meant to be love should conquer all no matter what, but at that age I was just ready to go play basketball, chess or pick up a 40oz to shake off what I had watched and relax before classes started.

I would not be surprised if I had yelled, "WHOOOOAAAA!!!""" in the middle of the screening.  Maybe I laughed it off as well but immediately the thought was implanted in all the students' heads:  WHAT WOULD YOU DO?  We even discussed it and of course my first reply was "I would whip that ass".  Or maybe I would blame myself for not knowing.  This flick was set in Europe, but I had not really warmed up to understanding homosexuality at that point, let alone the okie doke - being surprised in the heat of the moment the person is a transvestite!  Thankfully, that flick was not an omen of anything I've since experienced in my life and hope I never will.

But during school is where I began to think some people chose to experiment with their sexuality and were not born gay.  People would admit doing very gay things at school "just because" or on a a dare, or while drunk...but then they revert to their straight lives on school breaks.  Maybe they all were bisexuals?  One day these labels will vanish.  There were elements to the school that seemed to me during those first few months a haven for sexual experimentation; students would kiss each other at certain parties, then switch and kiss another friend of the same gender.  So i avoided certain parties at certain places just limited parties to the reggae and hip hop joints and occasional frat keg parties.

Upon further research, after the first month of courses there, I noticed the school was known to embrace LGBT community, and that there were several schools like it.  I had no idea what I was in store for socially, but I recall recurring instances involving chalk on sidewalks that irked me.  The night before Parents' weekends, many students would take chalk and scribble adult homosexually charged messages on sidewalks that would greet all the parents in the morning. This practice has since been banned by the University, however. Specifically, the president stated in 2002, ''There was not a bright line that was crossed,'' Mr. B said, talking about his decision in his office. ''What happened was an accumulation of these expressions that were increasingly aggressive and violent sexually and that continued to include pointed and in some cases racial references.''

Some of the messages were:

"Fuck your own gender!"

"Question your sexuality! Join the Queer Alliance!"

"Same sex Rules!"

"Boys should love Boys"

And they were indeed more vulgar than I would bother to type.

This experience led me to see homosexuality for some as a game, an experiment, fashion statement, something to do when you're drunk or high with a good friend and not be called bad names, and not necessarily something all are "born with".  And then you learn about famous gay people, like James Baldwin and you see the struggles, in the form of death, harassment, abuse many go through worldwide simply because people dislike the gay presence and gay behavior.  So many are afraid to come out, but tolerance and acceptance in the States is at an all time high, which arguably is not saying much in comparison to other developed nations who have had gay marriage on the books for awhile.  Despite gains, there is an entire culture of men, "down low bros", who above ground date and have sex and marry and impregnate women, but on the down low, the D.L., they seek same sex for recreation reminiscent of the Greek days, when men would get naked to train together and compete.

The word gymnasium is the latinisation of the Greek noun γυμνάσιον (gymnasion), "gymnastic school", in pl. "bodily exercises" and generally "school"[2] which in turn is derived from the common Greek adjective γυμνός (gymnos) meaning "naked",[3] by way of the related verb γυμνάζω (gymnazo), whose meaning is "to train naked", "train in gymnastic exercise", generally "to train, to exercise"

Today, in many states of America it is now legal for those identifying as homosexuals to marry and enjoy the rights as would a married man and woman.  President Obama has fought long and hard to rid the military of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy and repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. These were historic moments and will be a main pillar in his presidential legacy, much to the chagrin of raging conservative Christian right, right?  Right.  Ironic that most scandals involving elected officials and unknown homosexuality were among Republicans, the most outspoken advocates against it.

The ugliest side of all sex is when power is used to dictate another's introduction into or sovereignty over his or her own sexuality. Molestation happens too often, as does date rape, rape on military bases, stranger rape, etc.  During slavery little girls, but also little black boys were "pimped" out to salivating savages. Rape of women and men happened on the plantation often with intent to render black men docile and defeated, black families constantly vulnerable to attack or separation. For centuries black sexuality and reproduction were manipulated and experimented with, as it remained within the purview and control of masters of slavery to do as they saw fit, to degrade a people and profit off their labor.    

Many of these masters were married. They chose homosexuality as a tool to oppress black male slaves, especially the strong ones.  Reminds me of Abu Ghraib scenes where male sex abuse was used as weapon to defile and degrade Muslim prisoners.  

This brings us to my final answer on sexuality in general and I overstand now the idea of a sexuality continuum, considering how complicated human sexuality is.  On one end you have the epitome of heterosexuality, and the other you have the sweetest taboo...epitome of homosexuality.  And consider the varying degrees between the two.  People can be oriented at any point on the continuum, to move along that continuum, or some may be strictly oriented to the opposite sex, for example.  Some may be willing to do gay things but not have a gay lifestyle, yet still think it's not homosexuality.  DJ Mr. Cee, one who swears he is not gay, has admitted he prefers oral sex from men in the trans community.  Sadly, the only reason we heard this 'final answer' is because he's been caught in NYC by undercover agents getting these blowjobs from transvestites on more than three occasions and rumored to have been about that life for decades.  I am glad he is now living his truth.

But maybe that's his thing. Was he born that way?  Some argue all gay people must have been born gay, otherwise they would never choose to be gay and go through all the vitriol and potential violence accompanying them at every turn.  I say just See Loving v Virgina.  When you claim you love someone, especially yourself, I imagine that the last thing on your mind is what anyone thinks about it, unless life/limb is threatened in that moment of course.  IN fact, most who come out after having known they were gay forever say their biggest mistake was not keeping it real with themselves, being overly concerned about others' judgments.  My citing that U.S. Supreme Court case legalizing marriage between black and white people is not my acceptance of comparing the gay struggle to race equally, but only to demonstrate how love and following your bliss must conquer all no matter what.

Love who you love just don't deny yourself the full essence of who you are. Do not lie. Know yourself. Do not mislead anyone especially fiances, as was seen in NBA star Jason Collins, who came out to the world on television leaving his lady since college and now ex-fiance shocked to no end.  Her book will be out soon I'm sure.  Nobody respects a fraud. This subject gets heated on social media so just be a closer friend of UNDERSTANDING and so long as people are not being vulgar and are in no way attracting children to any vulgarity whatsoever, I say we should understand both sides, remain respectful and stay in our respective lanes.

For the record, on the strength of this pic alone I am not in support of CHOZEN, a cartoon on FX about a gay white rapper released from prison, who seeks to take aim at the misogyny in hip hop, a new world view that was shaped by his time in prison.  I will pass on this one.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


          I consider Japan, specifically Tokyo, my second home.  I lived there for a total of two years.  During my first visit in 2001 I taught English conversation to students ranging in age from 16-85 for almost a year and a half.  The company for whom I worked did not require teachers to learn Japanese; we were advised to never use it in trying to explain English concepts to the students.  In fact, many foreigners in general who live in Japan, do not learn the language if it is avoidable, or simply learn the basics.  The characters alone intimidate many into believing it must be one of the most difficult languages to grasp.  But I tend to go against the grain and my insatiable curiosity compels me to learn as much as I can about my environment, to communicate and have meaningful conversation with people, to immerse myself.
          After several frustratingly futile attempts to communicate using only English and gestures during the first couple of weeks at the supermarket, library, post office, bank, etc. in a Tokyo suburb called Ota-ku, I thought of how long my stay would be and the desire to learn Japanese overcame me.  I felt like a child, an illiterate, and the idea of always being dependent on others or constantly lost in translation and confusion scared the hell out of me.  I remember thinking to myself then that my life in Tokyo would be so much easier if I learned the language.  Although this was my first foray beyond the borders of the U.S., I had previously studied Spanish from seventh grade through my second year of college.  This background gave me confidence that I could master another tongue, so I feverishly began studying the two basic Japanese alphabets; katakana and hiragana.
          Long story short, in three weeks I mastered those alphabets, signed up at a private language school in Meguro with a coworker and took lessons.  The coworker's passion quickly waned; I began excelling in our class while she never did her homework and ultimately quit.  I totally understood, had no hard feelings and chose to take private, one-on-one lessons for a couple months.  Six months from learning the two basic alphabets, I took and passed the government sponsored annual Japanese Proficiency Test, level 4, which basically meant I could converse with a twelve year old.  I was extremely elated and began using my skills to order food, direct taxi, pick up ladies, call for delivery pizza, and more.  But the purpose of this post is to share my experiences during the study process then and now. 
          The process of studying I used then, is similar to the flashcard process I am using today.  For the last couple of months here in 2012 I have been studying the third and most crucial of characters known in Japan as KANJI, the characters represented in the picture above, which characters were adopted from China.  Chinese characters (kanji) are used to write the major content words - words with semantic content such as verbs, nouns, and adjectives. Hiragana is used to write grammatical markers and endings.  Foreign words, like McDonald's or even foreign names are written in katakana.  Back in Tokyo, I made flashcards while learning katakana and hiragana, and always studied them whenever I had a break, or especially while riding the most tranquil train system in the world I imagine; you could hear a pin drop the silence would be so deafening.  On the longer train rides, I would notice Japanese businessmen in my periphery and many of the youth curiously staring at me as I whizzed through my deck of flashcards.  I would notice them pointing in amazement, and occasionally a rare bold Japanese person would approach me and quietly ask questions about my studies.
          Well, while studying on these much dirtier, more unreliable and less safe trains here in New York City recently, I have experienced similar interactions, and am approached at least twice a week.  The City can be cold at times, so when people are compelled to speak, and it is based on genuine interest, I walk away knowing I left a different kind of impression on others.  My routine here is the same. Whenever I am on a train, I reach in my bag and pull out my rubber banded stack of cards and start studying them, testing how many I can recall.  We all know people are naturally nosy when confined in a space with strangers they have access to on trains; many wonder what others are reading or look over shoulders to decipher others' personal text messages, or sit as spectator watching their neighbor play an exciting game of Solitaire or Sudoku on their iPhone.  So occasionally people take note of me, a black man sometimes wearing work clothes, other times casually dressed, listening to music and going through flashcards with mysterious looking writing on it.  This might baffle some actually.
          The first few people who would stop me dead in the middle of flipping over a card knowing I am also jamming to music, were Chinese or Chinese Americans or Americans who happened to be Chinese.  Now, I learned while living in Japan that Chinese were more socially aggressive than Japanese, so I was not totally surprised.  Also, because the characters were Chinese, seeing me on a NYC train studying their own language served as a good conversation starter.  The very first Chinese person was very interested and he basically watched along and blurted out the meaning (in English) as I flipped the cards.  There came a point where I blurted out the English meaning and he disagreed with me.  It may have been the kanji for "pond", but we soon realized that these characters have different meanings at times and we both ended up being correct.  But this cross-cultural exchange early one Saturday morning on the NJ Transit heading to work was very enriching.  Others were noticing our conversation and were as amazed as I was at our exchange, the two worlds coming together, bonding in ways most people never do, let alone with foreigners.
          The same thing still happens today, but mostly there would be an inquiry asking what I am studying, and because their English would be limited, I would often get a simple thumbs up and smiles from my Chinese brethren and sistren who acknowledge that I am studying their language and they appreciate it.  I would often go to brunch alone at Harlem Tavern to eat and study.  I remember the first non-Chinese person that approached me while studying, the tallest waiter there, walked over to my table and asked if I was studying Chinese, how hard it was, and that he was considering it.  I enjoyed our exchanges, as he would drop off my french toast and Mimosas.  That same day during brunch an older gentleman with his wife, ended up asking my name and giving me his business card because he had also studied Chinese and often does business in Asia.  Wow, this whole PDFLA, Public Display of Foreign Language Affection, seemed to be opening doors, giving many who I otherwise would never meet an opportunity to relate to me.  It is very heart-warming to be received this way in public, when strangers are moved to talk with me based on what I may be reading or because I am studying these Chinese characters.  
          A couple of black men stopped me in my tracks, making sure though that I was not being disturbed, which I respected.  I always take my headphones off and chat.  One of them said, "Say man is that Chinese you studyin? I always wanted to learn that language man good for you man you gon' be the next black Yao Ming up in this mothafucka!"
           I had to laugh with him after hearing that, then I thanked him as he walked out before the doors closed to his stop.  I shared with an older black man, dressed in a Steve Harvey special zoot suit, that I lived in Tokyo, which shocked him even more as we discussed Japanese animation and martial arts, of which he happened to also be a fan.  A couple of white men have stopped me, one telling me it is the toughest language to learn (even though they'd never learned it) and wishing me luck. Generally people seemed impressed or pleasantly surprised.  Even today, on the 6 train headed to my all-day memoir writing course, a guy looked at me in amazement asking what I was studying.  He seemed extra excited and in awe, his eyes bugged out his face, he was smiling ear to ear and seemed genuinely taken aback and excited about my studying Japanese.
          Unbeknownst to any of these people, these interactions have further fueled my desire to master the language.  I interpret these moments as encouragement that I am on the right path.  Knowing that I am learning the characters related to both Japan AND China makes me think somewhere down the line I may be called to master Chinese as well.  Surely I will answer that call with the same passion. 
          All this to say if you ever get a chance to learn a foreign language, do it.  Studies show this is a great way to maintain an active brain.  Mastering languages also opens the door to have cross-cultural experiences here in diverse USA and to freely travel through countries where that language is spoken.  Learning Spanish here in the United States should be mandatory as the number of Spanish speakers increases exponentially.
          Challenge yourself, lose yourself in another language and you too will notice many social or potential professional doors open for you as well.  You will observe how it liberates you to break down barriers that foreign language creates.  By your own curiosity and willingness to learn, you make the world smaller, more manageable, more familiar, more ONE.  The more we cut down all that divides us, the closer we become to understanding each other, to living in peace, to uplifting our fellow man.  Me Comprendes?     

Thursday, April 5, 2012


          I get a lot of questions from both male and female friends/coworkers and family about my love life, and some want to know specifically why I am single, with so many available ladies out there.  In some ways I take it as a compliment.  Implicit in the question however is that being married is the ideal state of affairs we should all desire.  I first want to disabuse the reader of this misleading and self-defeating notion that marriage is the proverbial Garden of Eden and being single is akin to Purgatory, or that marriage symbolizes success, while living single constitutes failure.  Plenty of people, for whatever reasons, live wonderful and enriching lives without ever tying the knot.  And we all are privy to statistics of those who get divorced, and personal accounts of the legions who are "stuck" in relationships they hate but choose to suffer through because they either fear being alone or are sacrificing personal freedom and happiness for kids.  If we are honest, we see in most other relationships that marriage ain't all it's cracked up to be.  Who cares what I think?  Some have suggested that I jot down my thoughts on this subject.  So, hopefully you will understand one perspective, and another I attached at the end.   
           I began to wonder whether I just enjoy living the single life, or am I afraid of commitment?  No, I am not the playboy Don Juan in his mid-30s, lurking and surfing the New York City club circuit every weekend, buying drinks for women with ulterior motives hoping for a quick score.  My apartment is not a revolving door for the ladies, never has been never will be.  After a long term relationship, I took a 1.5-year sabbatical from relationships altogether - many call it celibacy.  What a beautiful struggle but this is not the focus of my post.  After the sabbatical, I found myself openly "dating" more than one woman for the first time as an adult a couple years ago, not focusing on the physical.  Needless to say, my introduction to dating as a working man in NYC was overwhelming and awkward.  Dating while also engaging in extracurricular activities very regularly, proved to be a bad idea and not my style in the end.  I had less time for myself, less time for women, and was accused of "double-booking" once.  And it felt, although I was honest with them all, like I was cheating myself and others so that had to stop.
          That experiment taught me several things about myself.  I have proven too willing to stay in a relationship when parting ways is best.  As a result, I decided not to get married or start a relationship just to avoid being single and all the stigma that being single attaches.  I promised myself that I would start a relationship only with someone I knew would represent me well, and vice versa, and who could be a good mother and friend.  The challenge would be how to find that person.  And what a NYC challenge it is, once you decide to start "shopping".  In the city some want relationship FAST like McDs or those tasty Burger King chicken wraps Mary J. Blige felt the need to recently promote.  Gotta be deliberate in this town.  I do wonder how much time all women have spent just being single.  Beware the Relationship Jumpers!! 
          I enjoy being single, unattached and I also embrace the idea of sharing my time and space with the right person.  I used to be almost deathly afraid of choosing the wrong woman.  But fear no longer controls.  I have been somewhat stressed at times and very busy (you never know what someone is going through. It is NOT always about YOU if things go south- a lesson I have come to appreciate).  Or maybe I am running away, keeping women at a comfortable distance?  No, I think it is more simple.  So far, I have had no intention to find that "special someone", more to find a relatively sane woman I can simply like and...wait for it...GET ALONG WITH.  Imagine that!  So my excuse is I have been looking without committing, searching without settling - a deliberate process I think all people should undergo.  And do not force it.  Dating can be a harrowing, draining, annoying experience.  I refuse to be bothered.   
          For me, the path must be easy-breezy, no stress.  In this land of quick and conspicuous consumption, in this concrete jungle where many women's souls have been turned ice cold, I will be deliberate.  I am more interested in a woman's mental space, whether she has taken steps to address any deep-seated issues from childhood or gotten over that last boyfriend, for example.  I cannot ask of my potential wife or lady-friend something that I do not ask of myself.  I am building a stronger me, for a potentially stronger we, and it matters a lot to me who she be, you see?   
          If divorce in my community and in the country generally has reached epidemic proportions, why would I do the same things they did and expect NOT the same results?  We need a paradigm shift.  Expectations many have, some largely superficial, may need to be put on the back burner as a person's heart and soul should really be the only measure for compatibility.  I know there are plenty of queens out there as well and I salute those ladies with all my heart.       

Also, check out this interview between two friends from college, the interviewed friend, Duke, is approaching 40yrs, who is also single and has words to share, along with NCAA talk at the beginning.  Great Show Shereem!!  Take care!!     http://www.blogtalkradio.com/everythingmanradio/2012/03/16/basketball-frenzy-and-a-single-man-on-the-cusp-of-40#.T2TEVbLu-B0.facebook

Saturday, November 5, 2011

"Occupy Wall Street" - My Take on the 99% Awakening

          Unless you have been sleeping in a cave, bound, ears plugged, blind-folded, or gagged in a basement without cell phone reception, television/radio or access to newspapers since September 17, 2011, you are at least aware that something called "Occupy Wall Street" (OWS) has begun, crystallized and spread from lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park throughout the world.  As with all moments daring to instigate social change, the visible manifestations of frustration merely reflect the impact that long-standing and widespread societal ills have had on the collective hearts and minds of the people of the United States. $700 billion in bailouts and a continuing recession later, it seems that people have said ENOUGH IS ENOUGH and have chosen to do something about it themselves, even if that translates to simply changing how they think about where and how they spend their money and time, how they view politics.  Much of the ire of OWS is centered on money tainting politics and corporations defrauding the people, all foreseeable consequences of crony capitalism.  To some extent, this occupy movement by such a critical mass worldwide was inevitable.  The following is my take on this movement's significance as I chose to support the 99% from the outset, having spent a considerable amount of time conversing and breaking bread with OWS.  What is the root of the matter?
          The issues originated centuries ago from the "founding" of this nation, and were sustained via the peculiar institution of slavery (centuries of free labor), Jim Crow, gender inequality, union busting, decreasing quality in unequal education, religious hypocrisy, unjust wars and so on.  The indigenous people of this country unsuccessfully sought to protect their own land from the encroaching attacks on their person and property by very deceptive and murderous "founders" who could not be trusted even in treaties they signed.  As many of you know (see the African Burial Ground http://www.africanburialground.gov/ABG_Main.htm online or in person), African people built the "wall" circa 1653 to protect the Dutch from the indigenous tribes, and it stretched from the Hudson to the East River in what was then known as New Amsterdam.  Africans were bought and sold on "Wall Street"; human beings were the original commodity traded there.  Corporations, institutions of higher learning and other entities at home and abroad profited greatly from said trade, all on the backs of many of our forefathers and foremothers.  As such, it has been American policy to choose profit over people for most of America's existence.  This is the foundation of American capitalism.  Wall Street protests through history all point to the reality that there always have been two Americas; one where unchallenged profit for a few by any means necessary seems sacrosanct, and the other America where the people choose to demand truth and be heard.  For an in-depth look at Wall Street protests in history, click this interactive link: http://www.history.com/news/2011/10/11/wall-street-300-years-of-protests/.
          Throughout our nation's history, Black people sought to occupy freedom, humanity and the Constitution in a nation whose Supreme Court once declared in 1857, but meant to last through perpetuity, that a Black man has no rights that white people should respect.  See Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 US 393.  The Japanese, Latinos, Chinese, Koreans, Haitians, Irish, Muslims, women, poor people, the GLBT nation and others also fought/fight to occupy peace, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and the ever elusive equality often promised here in the U.S.    
          These precedents of discrimination and corruption, the greedy using control to rip off and propagandize the American public, have led to record unemployment and severe apathy.  And 49.1+ million Americans are now living in Poverty, taking into account wages and expenses.  See Census Bureau Study (Nov.2011)The Black unemployment rate, almost 17% if not higher in certain areas (25% in Detroit last year), is at its highest since 1984.  (http://money.cnn.com/2011/09/02/news/economy/black_unemployment_rate/index.htm).  The richest 1% of the world owns 40% of the planet's wealth.  See World Institute for Development Economics Research of the United Nations.  OWS is said to have been inspired by the recent spark of unrest in the Middle East, where the people courageously demanded accountability and representation. 

          After seeing Tunisians (Dec 2010), Egyptians (Jan 2011) and others in the Middle East fight for regime change, after seeing protests/riots in England (Jul 2011) and Greece (Aug 2011), I immediately began to wonder if anything similar would ever happen here in the United States as we all are connected in this increasingly small world.  The disgusting union busting in Wisconsin in Feb 2011 hinted at our resolve.  But many more now are dissenting.  I consider these past events and others as straws weakening the back of the stubborn camel of change.  Once people learn the truth they change their view.  
          For example, Howard Zinn will always remain valuable to me for disclosing other facts on various historical labor uprisings, revolutions of women, indigenous American struggles and the nature of their relationship with the U.S., Africans in America fighting centuries of mental, spiritual, physical abuse and more in his most compelling and critical book, "A People's History of the United States."  It is refreshing knowing that Zinn still sells more copies each year than the prior year!  And it is no surprise it's one of the first books I saw at the original OWS library shown below.  This book symbolizes how under-educated many Americans have been or remain regarding the history, and thus the presence, of the U.S.  Much of the truth he shares was conveniently omitted from our history books, but liberated me as all truth should, and plays a role in how I view American politics today.  "No wonder we seem so out of touch, no wonder history repeats itself," I'd say to myself.  Instinctively, I grew curious about what people abroad learned about the States, like an embarrassed kid who fell flat on his face in the snow, only to be concerned about whether anyone saw him do it. 

          Once I began traveling and living in other countries after college I noticed the perception others had of Americans: comparatively uneducated on matters of US local/national politics, globally illiterate (add to that Americans' penchant NOT to travel), and seem to blindly rely on and remain captive to a misleading media (FOX, CNN, MSNBC, ETC) and images from Hollywood.  I was teased abroad for allowing a GW Bush to win the Presidency, and I did not even vote for Bush!  The perception is so strong, that on more than one occasion, and in different countries, yours truly has been congratulated for not being a typical "American" not only in my views but in how I listened and welcomed their views as well. 
          For example, one bloke from England, Carl, went out of his way to call a friend while meeting and conversing with me in Thailand, saying "I am here talking to the keenest guy I have ever met from the States! He actually knows what's going on in the world!"  Of course I wanted to smack him upside his head at what I temporarily considered a backhanded compliment.  But this was his perception as an Englishman based on Americans he had met, and the half true joke that most Americans,even potential presidential candidates, are clueless about countries abroad unless we are at war with them tempered my response.  And I sensed he was genuine; his mother cosigned on this love fest, sharing with me her story.  I gave him a pass and asked about hooligans after I dismissed his opinion that "American hip hop was to blame for the London Riots".  It is because of this perception of Americans that I remain proud this global movement to "occupy" began here and the rest chose to spontaneously be with U.S., not against us in peace, and not war.
          With this as a backdrop I chose to support the leaderless OWS movement, which to me has had a much more significant impact on the democratic process than voting itself, because the entire movement is driven by a peoples' conscience, and we have never as a nation collectively voted our conscience.  Moreover, black people (nationwide by 1964) and white women (nationwide by 1920) were basically just given the vote yesterday.  Native Americans could not vote in every state until 1956, when Utah finally sealed the deal.  There has been corruption at the polling place, a stolen election in 2000 sanctioned by the Supreme Court, coupled with low voter turnout.  We are a nation in slow progress, historically coexisting in somewhat uncivilized, anxiety producing environments.
          I first visited Zuccotti Park in late September 2011, not really having a clue what to expect but interested more in acknowledging the effort and seeing the situation with my own eyes.  Being a horrible spectator, I refused to simply sit in a high chair and read about or judge potentially angry and frustrated Americans directly calling out Wall Street and corrupt politicians.  I met Libertarians, Tea Partiers, Democrats, Republicans, the entire political, racial, religious and class spectrum.  Most were anti-Obama, while reserving the right to vote for him "if [fill in any repugnant Republican] were the only alternative."  One gentleman approached me while there, and after we chatted a bit about OWS he said, "You know, this is a very powerful place.  Had I seen you on the train I probably would never have spoken to you."  I jokingly replied, "Why is that? Would you have been afraid that I would cut you?" 
          But he was spot on.  Zuccotti Park became a focal point of empowerment through acknowledgment, where all are encouraged to speak their truth, respect all others, support the purpose of the movement, and respect the grounds.  OWS demands we ask of ourselves and each other, "What kind of world do we want to live in?"
          People from all walks of life and different states, including indigenous Americans were there representing and exchanging ideas, educating.  I met a 16yr old black female who had hitchhiked from college in North Carolina to join OWS.  Several artists, yoga instructors and community leaders would show up, lead a yoga/meditation session, or check the mic and offer their moral support to the people during a regular group meeting called "General Assembly".  I have played chess there and even snatched up a spare drum, joining an impromptu jam session with a diverse group of occupiers playing instruments and dancing, while those without instruments were chanting in call and response style, "Show Me What Democracy Looks Like!  This is what Democracy Looks Like!"
          I observed the library grow tenfold, as did the kitchen (a farmer drove up from North Carolina to provide fresh produce).  Stop by and you will find eco-friendly systems like energy producing bicycles, composting, and a greywater treatment area.  There is an area where medical services are provided, a place to charge cell phone batteries, a legal committee where I signed up to help, a recycling and sanitation section.  It is a kind of "tent city" with pockets where people would be debating, conversing, commiserating, and learning from each other. 

          Drunk investment bankers were verbally lashing the two young women above while I took this shot, saying "All of you fucking hippies need to take a bath and get a fucking job! Me and my boys will be back to water hose all of you!"  Of course, random drunk passers-by who hate themselves and their jobs spewing nonsense would prove to be the least of the Occupiers' concerns.  The media, however, mischaracterized OWS, calling them hippies, jobless white middle class kids demanding an entitlement.  The media failed to even cover this movement for a couple weeks until after over 700 protesters were arrested on Brooklyn Bridge on October 1; video of women being maced and protesters being attacked by police also surfaced.  Of course viral video of Sgt Shamar Thomas shouting down thirty armed officers in NYC for brutalizing unarmed citizens will forever be etched in my memory.  Support from war vets has proven crucial, having already been injured on the frontlines.  NYPD has no choice but to respect those stripes.
          To be fair, not every percent in the 99% is informed, or understands history and the role of government.  A few may feel that their Comcast bill, the #4 extra value meal at McDs, or movie tickets are too damn high and simply want their voices heard.  Some may be pissed that BET destroys images of Black people.  And at times, when attempting to engage and learn some of their positions, they inevitably stumble, hedge, or talk from an emotional standpoint as opposed to factually buttressing their points.  Some even walk away frustrated at too many direct questions, or are uncomfortable admitting lack of knowledge.  For many in the States who have joined the movement, being factual about their positions remains unchartered territory, and their delusions often rise to the surface.  Other criticisms have been that OWS lacks specific demands and is leaderless.  It is relatively apolitical and attacks the most damaging issues confronting our attempts at a democracy, like police brutality.

          Is this only a "white middle class group" simply exercising their right to free speech?  The young man holding the sign in the picture above, a local artist among the original five who began this effort at Zuccotti Park, is still there today, three arrests later, three court dates pending.  It has become increasingly more diverse.  I have personally been involved in many discussions and have seen heated ones there on racism, how even among liberal whites there needs to be more accountability and change.  Many noted individuals (artists, political activists, etc) came down to speak, run tv programs and interviews live, and/or engage with the people in a Unity.  There have been anti "Stop and Frisk" marches in Harlem and Brooklyn.  Some felt the OWS cause was overly broad, and instead of distancing themselves altogether, began the "Occupy the Hood" movement, which sheds light on the impact Black Americans can make with buying power, collectively spending over $1.1 trillion dollars yearly consuming goods in this country.  Let's Occupy our wallets for a change. 
          OWS has become much bigger than just Zuccotti Park, however; an awakening has potential to impact all areas of people activity (economics,education,entertainment,labor,law,politics,religion,sex,war) throughout the world.  Other movements have sprouted to more narrowly define specific interests (I am sure each has its own facebook page to 'like'), like Occupy Mainstream Media, Occupy Your Mind, Occupy Hip Hop, Occupy Your Health, Occupy the Marines, Occupy the FED, Occupy the DOE (Dept of Ed), and the list continues to grow.  I interpret OWS as a global social movement seeking political footing (presidential election in a year) and demanding accountability of politicians and bankers, some who have made off with more than Madoff.  Consider OWS a social evolution; a broad-based attempt to change how we communicate with each other, how we acknowledge each other and embrace our differences; and hopefully the death knell of apathy will ring loudly now and far into the future.    
          Of course there are various interests and concerns that OWS seeks to redress (please don't mistake this as my presentation of their demands).  Aside from direct conversation, I have taken photos and a good number of video while among the people near Wall Street and here are just a few of the slogans, messages on signs and points of interest the 99% the world over share (not to be confused with OWS demands):

* In 2010 JP Morgan Chase made $17.4 billion and paid 0% taxes
* The American Dream - You'd have to be asleep to believe it. WAKE UP!
* Populism not Corporate Fascism
* 2nd Time I've fought for my Country - 1st Time I've known my Enemy
* We See Something, So we are saying Something...Just like you asked
* NYPD Stop Your Terrorism
* You are NOT Powerless! Protest Bank of America's $5 debit card fee - Close Your Account today
* Wall Street needs an Enema - Full of Crap
* I could lose my job having a voice
* First they Ignore you, then they Laugh at you, then they Fight you and then YOU WIN!
* Prison Industrial Complex = Exploitation
* Party's Over you Lying Sach's of Shit
* Make less than $1,137,684/year? Congrats! You're one of the 99%

          My advice to the occupiers around the world is to maintain your character as this is the only way credibility and purpose (as individuals and a collective) will remain impregnable.  Stay in shape!  Stay away from drugs, continue focusing on what we can do with our buying power nationwide.  Continue to livestream Zuccoti Park online yourselves, knowing the media too is compromised and has already attempted to damage the collective reputation of the 99% (http://occupywallst.org/).  Continue demanding accountability from greedy bankers and politicians.  Stop voting for politicians who do not 100% represent the 99%!  Continue being creative, eventually occupying places like McDonalds, Taco Bell, and elected representatives' offices as was done recently outside Sen. McConnell's office in DC.  Use the court system to fight charges stemming from abuse or wrongful arrests.  Continue OWS for Scott Olsen (war vet shot by rabid police in Oakland during a peaceful protest) and others, be they military vets or not, who have been victimized by excessive police force.  In short, OCCUPY EVERYTHING and INCLUDE EVERYONE! 
          I have been moved by this occupation and those involved because the people are finally taking ownership over their individual and collective power, along with ownership over their government.  It has sparked an international conversation.  This may be the biggest global people movement in history.  Maybe we are also reacting to our transforming universe, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius; some even have predicted a grand shift in consciousness, among other things, in 2012 and this year of global revolution might be a reflection of the birth of that if true.  Also, the symbolism of the location of OWS Zuccotti Park, equidistant from "Ground Zero" and Wall Street proper, is significant in that the rebuilding, uplifting, and restorative nature and force of the people's energy and purpose directed at Wall Street serves as metaphor for the contemporaneous erection of 1 World Trade Center.  Hopefully by the time WTC is rebuilt (Freedom Tower possibly completed by 2019), there will be no need for any occupations anywhere.  And as the police nationwide begin to clamp down and evict occupiers, new strategies to show solidarity and "occupy" will be necessary.  "Occupy Wall Street" can transform more into a slogan or call to action like "Fight the Power".    
          In the meantime, my hope is that out of this movement of people power all across the country, we may see a potential independent candidate who speaks to the interests of the 99% run for President in 2012 and directly impact what I feel will arguably be one of the most significant presidential campaigns in US history.  This movement will affect local politics as well.  I encourage you to think of ways that you too can be the change that you want to see.  After all, like former US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, "The most important political office is that of private citizen."  So use your power wisely!    

          I leave on a quote from a Slovenian philosopher who visited and spoke at the Occupy Wall Street site in downtown NYC:

"They tell you we are dreamers. The true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are. We are not dreamers. We are awakening from a dream turning into a nightmare. We aren't destroying anything, but only witnessing how the system is destroying itself."

Saturday, December 4, 2010


What do you know about ZUMBA??????

Well, aside from a friend expressing her undying love for it, I had absolutely no idea what Zumba was.  But as you may have come to learn about me by now...I will try anything once, except roller coasters, bungee jumping, sky diving, heli-skiing, bull riding, high altitude climbing, base jumping, or cave diving to name a few. But I digress.
Zumba I knew was safe and the slogan is "Ditch the workout, Join the party!"  So after hearing about it time and again, I decided to try it one day.  Luckily it is offered at Equinox and I happened to have gotten a one-month pass to any of their gyms in the city for $35!  
So, a couple days ago after work, i venture to the Equinox gym on 43rd and 5th in Manhattan, one block away from Bryant Park.  Clearly the eager beaver, I arrived a bit too early and decided to run a couple miles on the treadmill to warm up. I noticed some type of abs class was wrapping up in the same studio where Zumba was scheduled, so I grabbed a seat and watched the remaining stretches. The abs class was filled with ladies, and I began to wonder what the make-up of my Zumba class would be.
Time to Zumba!! I entered the studio, poised and ready to...do whatever Zumba requires I guess.  I noticed women piling into the classroom before and after me. I looked around a few times and finally accepted the fact that I was the only man in a studio with 21 young women (yes, i counted)! The instructor asks if it's anyone's first time.  With no shame at all I raised my hand, half expecting at least one other person to join me.  Nope.  Not only was I the only male there, I was the only one new to the situation.  So, there was a nanosecond where i felt slightly self-conscious.  The students all clapped, giving me encouragement and the instructor calmed any nerves by saying "we will take care of you."  Hey, what guy would not mind 21 women taking care of him? Fellas, can you hear me!!

What is Zumba?
Zumba is the name of a dance fitness program created by dancer and choreographer BETO in Colombia during the 1990s.  This program borrows from the following dance styles: Cumbia, Salsa, Merengue, Mambo, Flamenco, cha-cha-cha, Reggaeton, Samba, Belly-dancing, Bhangra, Hip-hop and Tango.  So you can imagine the various beats and tempo changes, which transition the workout from one toning, strengthening or cardio move to another, and targets every major muscle group in the body.

My Experience
The class begins, and the instructor explains that she silently teaches, meaning students would have to follow her lead.  No problem. I flowed through the first song pretty well, still somewhat self conscious but opening up to the idea that it is a fun exercise and who wants a stiff in class, or in life for that matter?  This is when I began to shine!
At one point the instructor notices how I'm dancing, or exercising, and she walks up facing me and starts dancing with me, in a manner similar to what the image above may evoke.  I veer a bit from her set dance and began to flip the script on her a bit, hit her with a Chris Brown freak 'em move while staying on beat, and she dug it!  The class continued, I was definitely sweating up a storm and shut everyone else in the studio out while I focused on her dances, and made sure the man in the mirror kept pace with everyone else.  There were times, however, when I felt the dance, or exercise, was strictly meant for ladies.  So when it came to gyrating with hands on my head, poking behinds out and waving arms with a somewhat limp wrist...I just did the best i could, and i did it my way, like Sinatra.
The instructor approached me again while at the same time looking at the door to the studio at a young lady watching.  She asks, "Is that your admirer or mine?"  I had no idea.  Made me wonder whether a guy had ever stepped foot in her class at all.  In fact, a family friend/Zumba instructor said she has yet to have a man show up in her class.  Man, I've got to get to her studio pronto!!! 
As the class winded down, I began to feel this workout making a difference in my abs, legs and arms.  The "gyrating" turned into an opportunity to really work my abs, and the "poking of the behind" I flipped into doing squats and was feeling invigorated as I saw the entire class moving as one to the beat. There was a lot of lateral movement, jumping, turning in circles with all types of footwork for about 45mins.

Sooner than later, the class ended.  Everyone seemed to have sweat buckets.  The instructor walks up to me and said, "Oh...my...God!! Are you sure this is your first time? You were awesome and you absolutely HAVE to come back next week!"  I promised that I would return the following Thursday no doubt.  As I left I turned and said, "I had a great time ladies, see you next week!"  They all gave me a huge smile and that was it.  That was my first Zumba experience.  I will probably only do that one class again and no more. I enjoy kickboxing, and while there is no dancing, I believe I work the same muscles and get that type of cardio workout, along with self-defense and peace of mind, at the dojo! And of course there's my bikram yoga!  Some guys may want to show up, score some points with the ladies as well.  You never know from whence your next opportunity will come!

Zumba is not totally my cup of green decaffeinated tea, but I at least have a point of reference and can now discuss the program with others interested, or maybe take a class with my friend I spoke of earlier one day.  Until then...

Saturday, November 27, 2010


Do you believe in love at first sight?  When it comes to romantic human relationships, I most likely have spent more time questioning the validity of such a phenomenon, to the point of renaming it "compelling chemical reactions at first sight" instead.  However, I have fallen in love with the following thus far, both oddly originating in India: butter chicken curry and bikram yoga, the latter being the focus of this post. I may bore you with my love for Halle Berry, Angel Lola Luv (Lola Monroe), or my mother some other time.

Allow me to first explain the nature of my physical activity and my limited perceptions of yoga prior to February 2010, when I first dared to begin the beautiful struggle that is bikram yoga.  I  had already embarked on a healthy course, having eliminated dairy, white sugar and soda from my diet, regularly drink half my body weight in ounces of water daily, completed a few lemonade diet master cleanses, survived bootcamp workouts with former green beret Eddie Lima @Trinity Boxing Gym, and I ran a NYC half marathon in 2009.  Clearly I was focused on wellness to some extent, but this is not a prerequisite at all to practicing yoga.
I was not familiar with yoga at all, let alone bikram yoga, until a school friend updated her facebook status asking friends if anyone would join her in trying it.  I was curious because yoga did not have a visible presence in black communities I knew.  Count me among the ignorant who believed yoga was an esoteric practice enjoyed solely by white folks, females and gay men.  The idea that non whites practiced often never really crossed my mind; none of my friends or family discussed or promoted it as I am now, for example.  I was quickly disabused of such fallacious reasoning after doing simple research and coming across an International Black Yoga Teachers Association, Yoga Teachers in Ghana, and the Society of Kemetic Yoga, to name a few.  A cursory search reveals that many Black people in the U.S., from Brooklyn to San Francisco, are learning about and teaching all types of yoga.  Take a look for yourself:  http://ynottony.com/yoga%20teachers.htm

Potentially being a part of this global network of Black yogis excited me as well so once my friend said we could purchase an unlimited initial one week package for $20, roughly the price for newcomers at any bikram yoga studio in NYC, I did not think twice!  To me, one week of anything geared towards self-improvement and wellness for that price is well worth a try.  I then feverishly began the research on Youtube and Google, watching videos on the topic, reading many testimonials, seeking insight from any experienced friends and coworkers, and listening to interviews of the mastermind of the practice, Bikram Choudhury.  What I learned motivated me to accept the challenge and step into what Bikram himself calls "the torture chamber."

                                   WHAT IS BIKRAM YOGA?

Bikram yoga is a 26 posture sequence, selected, developed and legally protected by Bikram Choudhury, that systematically works every part of the body, to give all the internal organs, all the veins, all the ligaments, and all the muscles everything they need to maintain optimum health and maximum function.  Before and after these postures there are two breathing exercises (known in Sanskrit as pranayama and khapalbhati breathing, respectively), and the studio is heated to at least 105 degrees. It is an intense 90 minute rigorous spiritual journey.  Yes, I said it...at least 105 degrees, also at about 40% humidity, for an hour and a half!! The heat is essential, since when you sweat, impurities are flushed out through the largest organ of the body, your skin.  Also the seemingly insane temperature level is meant to potect your muscles, allowing you to go deeper into a pose.  According to the Bikram Yoga College of India website, this style of yoga, known as hatha yoga, "flushes away the waste products, the toxins of all the glands and organs of your body. It provides a natural irrigation of the body through the circulatory system, with the help of the respiratory system. It brings nourishment to every cell of your body so that each one can perform its function and keep your body healthy."  When I found an online calories-burned calculator, I, at 200lbs, apparently lose 1361 calories in one session!!??  Feel free to calculate yours @  http://www.bikram-yoga-noosa-australia.com/weight-loss-and-yoga.htm  Although I am certain this calorie burned count may be debatable, I was still SOLD!!
The practice has been known to help decrease incidents of high blood pressure, heart disease, certain cancers, stress, migraines, injuries and works the following biological systems: cardiovascular, endocrine, renal, digestive, muscular, nervous, reproductive, respiratory, and skeletal, while boosting your immune system and even reversing the process of bone loss.  NFL players specifically use it often to heal leg, back and neck injuries.  Bikram himself attributes the healing of his shattered leg to the practice.  Without yoga, he may have taken the advice of European doctors, which was to have his leg amputated.  Since I had ACL surgery over 10 years ago, another goal I had was to hopefully help further rehabilitate my right knee (thanks Dale!).  Lastly, it is marketed as "healing from the inside out" and I had to experience this myself!

                              HOW WAS MY EXPERIENCE?

So, I met my friend at a studio on 116th between 5th and Madison in East Harlem, NYC, aptly named, "Bikram Yoga East Harlem."  I had also invited another friend and we all bumped into each other and waited outside to be buzzed in for the 6pm class with Vivian, an Asian instructor.  As we waited outside, more students showed up, predominantly Black and Latina women of various ages.  We were buzzed in, walked upstairs, greeted the receptionist, and I was pointed in the direction of the men's locker room and shower area.  Once I walked in, I saw two Black men, one an older man with dreads, drying off, having just showered after a session.  Always the inquisitive one, I peppered them with "quick questions" and learned that one of them had completed a 30-day challenge in the past, and the other spoke of his love for it, urging me to take my time and enjoy it.  With that, I took my shirt off, put on my shorts and was ready to go.  Before I left, they told me they believed the instructor was Japanese, who speaks fast and it may be hard for me to understand her.  I thanked them for their guidance, but knew privately that my time in Tokyo teaching English would help me follow along with no complications.
She was a great teacher, demanding at times but not overbearing.  I was sweating a river before the first two postures were done.  We were challenged to "go beyond your flexibility" and focus on our breathing throughout each posture.  I noticed some students needed to take a break, and we were told taking time out was okay; there was no judgment, and listening to our bodies was crucial.  Time flew, and the next thing I know I was in the final posture, shavasana, which Bikram calls the most important...and is featured in the inserted image.

This posture is also known as "dead body pose".  This is the final pose and the instructor asks students to remain in this posture for at least 2 mins, eyes closed, urging us to stay even longer so long as we leave before the next class, and some even stay for 15 mins.  Dead Body Pose "facilitates powerful blood flow, then lets circulation return to normal, creating internal cleansing and greatly magnifying the benefits of the postures that precede it."  Your goal here is to consciously relax every part and each muscle of your body, from feet to head, all the while deeply inhaling/exhaling through your nose.

As I walked down 116th after class towards the 2 train on Malcolm X Blvd drinking coconut water (you must replenish electrolytes lost through sweat), I simultaneously felt exhausted and exhilarated...a natural high, not minding the sound of honking horns, playful children, or the smell of fish from the local market.  I continued to breathe deeply while flexing my abs, squeezing out the bad air from my lungs as I learned in class. This feeling remained with me for at least two hours that night and I slept like a baby.  I began incorporating these breathing techniques in my daily life.  I returned about two weeks later to do a 30-day challenge (if you complete it you earn an entire unlimited month for free!!), which turned into almost 50 classes in a row!  I loved it, felt somewhat infatuated or obsessed, often traveling from my apartment in Newark, NJ at 4:30am, braving the winter elements to make the 6am class in East Harlem!  The love eventually grew such that I considered moving to the East Harlem area, to be closer to my baby.  And it loved me back in the form of an even better attitude of gratitude, deeper sleeps, and a reshaping of my body like never before (lost a couple inches in the waist)!  The love is so deep that people have begun to call me "bikram," as I often share stories with people in person and on Facebook about my experiences, how bikram has refined my ability to focus and empowered me to go beyond my comfort zone and overcome fears in other areas of life.   
The main fear I have overcome is expressing my feelings, being open, and honest/truthful.  The ego is more suppressed.  I can admit to almost falling in love with one of the instructors early on in my practice, half joking to myself that I wanted to either marry her, or someone who teaches bikram, or at the very least a woman who practices bikram faithfully.  The wedding ring on the instructor's finger was clear evidence that such a marriage was unlikely, so after awhile I rid my mind of that fantasy, and began to wonder why I started feeling this way (she is no longer there today).  And it dawned on me that one of the poses, the camel pose (ushtrasana in Sanskrit), may have been the culprit.

Camel Pose is an intense back bend and is known as a great heart opener. While in this pose, the instructor usually cautions students to be aware of powerful emotions that may surface, to embrace it while not letting it overpower us.  In the first few classes I recall thinking, "Whatever, there is no way some yoga pose is going to make me all sensitive and lovey-dovey!"  Well, it just may have.  In reading more about this posture, I learn that it represents the ability to accomplish the impossible: that if you feel disconnected from the world, family or other relationships, practicing camel pose "can help you express your feelings and find compassion towards others."  This posture opens up the heart chakra, the center in your body from which feelings of love emanate.  It benefits the body also by tightening the thighs, waist and hips, strengthening the arms, shoulders, knees and thighs, while massaging the kidneys and bladder.
Now I understand why I may have expressed certain things to certain people this year, or ended relationships that were unhealthy.  Now I see why I have become shy again, worried that I am feeling too much love too early, vulnerable even, and i am not adept at channeling it properly yet.  It explains why I decided to randomly contact and converse with my ex-father, my mother's ex-husband...who never bothered to contact me in any way since i was a pre-teen.  This may have led to my reading the entire Bible and the Qur'an this year. And I know it is what keeps me going back for more bikram, more love...and it is an eternal attraction.  

Before I completed this 30-day challenge, I was so obsessed I began to research what it would take to get a license to become an instructor, and possibly run my own studio one day as the lovely ladies of Bikram Yoga East Harlem below are doing.  This plan has been put on the backburner since I am certain one would need to have mastered each posture, and be among the most flexible to serve in that capacity, and I have a long way to go in that regard.  Word of this unique studio spread so fast that it was featured in many articles and blogs, on the morning news shows, and even the August 2010 edition of Essence magazine...all before the studio's 2nd anniversary.  And in January 2011, it was named among the top ten bikram yoga studios in the United States.  Feel free to read for yourself:  http://www.details.com/culture-trends/critical-eye/201102/10-best-bikram-yoga-studios-in-america   

Jennifer Pope & Stephanie Pope Caffey
Recently, I completed another 30-day challenge, which ended this year on October 30. This time i noticed feeling more powerful at the end of the month than last time and my knee has gained more strength than ever before.  I also noticed that my practice was getting stronger towards the end; my transitions from pose to pose were more fluid, and I think I felt a kind of awakening, a compelling clarity of mind/spirit that demanded further investigation.  The next plan is to complete a 60-day challenge in 2011, which may warrant it's own blog so keep an eye out for that.

Bikram yoga has facilitated personal healing and has allowed me to become more of an intuitive and alert being, I hope.  As such, I urge you to give bikram yoga a try, or any yoga for that matter.  If in New York, I recommend Bikram Yoga East Harlem, as you will meet great owners, be exposed to a diverse group of dedicated and supportive students and instructors, and a clean, non-judgmental, welcoming environment.  I dare you to transform via bikram yoga, "like a flower petal blooming."  No matter your age, shape, size or ethnicity, bikram yoga benefits everyone.  I congratulate the owners of this studio for "helping Harlem get healthy" one yogi at a time.  And I will continue to push the boundaries and challenge perceptions of what a yoga practitioner looks like. 

In closing, I give you Bikram Choudhury's words during a 2005 interview with a Southern California free yoga magazine called, "LA YOGA Ayurveda & Health Magazine ":

"I wish that every human being should do yoga. They should not suffer, they will never need drugs, medication, and have a happy, healthy peaceful life! No anger, which is the number one disease, especially in America."