Friday, July 27, 2012

Tackling Trapeze Flying (or something like that)

I like to be daring. I enjoy new adventures. So when I saw people flying over Lake Michigan on huge trapezes, I got excited. How fun would it be to fly through the air with the greatest of ease, the lake breeze wafting over me?  Turns out, that wasn't exactly the experience I had.

The Trapeze School of New York in Chicago appeals to everyone's sense of fun. Lots of people watched as we took turns on the trapeze and asked about classes. Of course,watching and doing are two totally different things. Caught up in the thrill of actually flying on a trapeze, it's easy to overlook the details. The most significant detail that I wish I had known before the class, is that you need to be coordinated. Guess what? Coordination has never been my strong suit. My life is extremely focused on the mental sphere so my command of the physical is relatively weak. Even my trainer gets puzzled with my ability to mix up the simplest routines. So you can imagine my panic when I realized that I would have to grab hold of the 15-pound bar, jump, hang from my knees and in the end, grasp our instructor's hands in perfect timing.

The first feat was just getting into the proper takeoff position. You are supposed to stand with your toes literally hanging off the platform, shoulders back and backside tucked in. The very act of having my feet drop  from the platform was scary for me. You feel as if you will fall immediately.

Then the whole shoulders back, backside tucked thing eluded me. Holding onto that heavy bar, my body was pulled toward it but I was supposed to fight it and pull backward. Yeah. Okay.

My legs were supposed to be straight, with toes pointed. The sensation of gripping the metal bar and feeling like my hands would slip was my focus, not my legs. I collected four callouses on my palms just from holding on to that bar so tightly.

My lower body strength is very good so I had no problem slipping my legs over the bar.

But did I mention that I detest being upside down? The disoriented feeling of your head swinging and everything out of focus unnerves me. You can see my instructor waiting for me to unfold my arms and grab his hands as he swung toward me, above. Never happened.

Climbing up that ladder, stepping onto the platform and gazing at that bar continued to spook me all of the five times that I did it. My takeoff improved and my timing grew slightly better but I was counting the minutes until the three-hour class would end. I think that I have mastered scarier things like zip lining in a Costa Rican rain forest and climbing several volcanoes but trapeze flying was a purely psychological scare for me. After all, I was attached to safety lines and there was a big net to catch me so I wasn't going to fall to my death. No, as my instructor explained to me, this was about letting go and just shutting out all of the fears. I think I need a longer class for that. Several of my classmates were tackling the trapeze for the third and fourth time but I felt no such temptation. I was glad that I did it but I was really glad that it was over.

I stumbled out on shaky legs and arms that would ache for four days afterwards. I rewarded myself with the thing that always makes me feel better. High quality sugar. I scarfed down gourmet pistachio and cherry almond cupcakes and almost felt like I could try trapeze flying again. Almost.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Chichen Itza and the Serpent Shadow

The energy was electric around the ancient site of Chichen Itza. To mark the sacred ceremony,I was covered in white clothing like many of the almost 30,000 visitors who journeyed to Mexico to witness the first leg of the 2012  Mayan equinox. I had glimpsed photos and seen videos but I still didn't quite know what to expect. Would the Mayan magic shift the ground? Would the sky darken? I intended to find out.

Since 2012 marks the beginning of a new cycle in the Mayan calendar, the anticipation at the spring equinox was especially intense. I learned about the complexity of the Mayan calendar system and contrary to pop culture claims, there has never been a prediction forecasting the end of the world in 2012. It's simply the end of the old aggressive, violent cycle and the beginning of a new, gentler one. This cycle is supposed to be filled with feminine energy, I saw priestesses leading chanting rituals at the site. December 21, 2012 is the official transition to a new spiritual awakening but many Mayans seemed to be preparing early.

As crowds from all over the world poured in, I felt the significance of participating in such a reverent ceremony. For thousands of years, the Maya observed the spring and autumn equinox at the Temple of Kukulcan and now I was joining this ritual that showcases the astrological expertise of this ancient culture.

The six square miles of Chichen Itza are dominated by the Temple of Kukulcan, often called El Castillo (The Castle). Designated as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, the temple boasts detailed, massive architecture including 91 steps on four sides, which add up to 364, the number of days in a calendar year. Master mathematicians and builders, the Maya constructed the site to honor the celestial changes that they held sacred as well as honored animals. Clapping at the base of the pyramid produces a chirping echo that resembles the sound of the sacred Quetzl bird and clapping near the steps creates an echo that sounds like the hiss of a rattlesnake, also a sacred animal. It sounds weird and loopy but I swear, bird chirps and snake hisses were flying out of that pyramid.

Of course, the serpent shadow dance at the equinox represents the most amazing Maya design of them all. As the sun lowers, a looming shadow that looks like a 120-foot long snake creeps down the pyramid until it joins the massive serpent head at the bottom of the stairway.

Abel, our charismatic guide above, supplied our group with fascinating historical tidbits about Chichen Itza. I learned a lot about Maya history from him but the most memorable was, "shade is better, shade is good," because the intense Mexican sun blazes down on the ruins with very little relief. We stayed in the shade until 4:00, when we could spot the shadow forming.

Look at the shadow crawling down the steps. above. It was an otherworldly experience watching as the symbol of Kukulcan, the serpent god came to life, appearing to slowly slither down the steps of the temple. Drummers played and priestesses chanted as the shadow completed its decent. I sensed a shift in the energy around the pyramid but no actual earth movement. I don't know if it's because I expected it or if  it's all Maya magic but I do look forward to a new cycle of peaceful awareness and tranquility.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Best Chicago Blues Bars

You know I love the blues. Besides being a part of my heritage, I really respond to the tangible emotions that run through the music, from joy and raunchiness, to melancholy and regret. You have not experienced the real Chicago until you have felt the embrace of live blues late at night, in a dark room filled with liquor fumes and laughter. You can catch Chicago blues on any night of the week in many neighborhoods but all blues clubs are not created equal. Beer selection and a convenient location don’t make a great blues club, the music and the atmosphere does.  I often get asked about the best Chicago blues clubs to visit so here are my  personal picks for the best spots to hear high quality blues, like sets by blues divas Deitra Farr, Nellie Travis and Peaches Staten, above.

1.  Rosa’s Lounge
The warmth of this small neighborhood joint extends from the gregarious Italian-born owner Tony Mangiullo, to the musicians and regulars who greet visitors like long lost friends.  Adding to the homey vibe,Tony’s mother Rosa runs the bar and serves up homemade pasta on designated nights. As a blues drummer, Mangiullo shows a keen eye for booking local blues legends like James Wheeler as well as cutting edge stars like Melvin Taylor and Deitra Farr.

2. Buddy Guy’s Legends
Owned by the legendary blues guitarist Buddy Guy himself, Legends is the place to hear energetic sets by local and  international performers like acclaimed singer/songwriter Shemekia Copeland, above. The back walls are lined with  the signed guitars of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Carlos Santana and B.B. King and the spacious room is always packed so come early. Sample Cajun specialties from the lunch and dinner menu and expect to dance, sing or at least clap along to the music.
3. Artis’s Lounge 
Technically, Artis’s isn’t strictly a blues bar since house, stepper’s music, R&B and karaoke find their way into the mix during the week. It’s Sunday and Monday nights that this lively, South Side spot jumps with so much blues spirit that it makes up for that little detail. Covered in mirrors and accented by a circular bar, Artis’s hosts blues harp master Billy Branch pictured above, on Monday nights, attracting fellow blues musicians to sit in along with a full house. Don’t miss the jukebox stuffed with blues and soul classics.

This intimate pub stands out as a showcase for talented blues women. It’s a rare night that Blue Chicago doesn’t focus on the wide-ranging skills of local blues singers like Grana Louise, Peaches Staten and Demetria Taylor. Drop in for a celebration of female blues voices in a relaxed setting. Sweaty dancing and on stage washboard playing are optional.

One of Chicago’s oldest blues clubs, this North Side Mecca is also one of the rowdiest, with two stages and crowds that veer towards frat boy antics. If you can overlook the offstage behavior, you can enjoy the onstage offerings that typically include a solid line-up of touring blues stars like Sugar Blue and The Kinsey Report, with engaging local singers like Nellie “Tiger” Travis.  Doc’s Rib Joint menu adds even more fun to the experience.

6. Lee’s Unleaded Blues
Declaring itself “Chicago’s Favorite juke joint,” this lounge lives up to its name with a dimly lit, rectangular space perched on an out-of-the way corner of the South Side. Locals have flocked to Lee’s since the 70s and there’s a heavy old school charm that floods the shag-carpeted room, pictured above. Listen to regulars like Sir Walter Scott or up and coming acts like Toronzo Cannon.