Category Archives: stories

Balancing Acts

I’ve been taking yoga on and off for the past ten years. During this time, my level of commitment has ranged from being an absolute devotee to having such limited concentration I’d only show up to class after my muscles had been completely exhausted by doing other work.

During those off years I’d try to smuggle in the New York Times to give me something to do — obviously completely missing the point of what yoga is all about.

After some time of focusing strictly on intense cardio sessions, I decided to come out of yogi retirement. I thought it might aid in focusing better, and calm me down after a hectic day at work.

Since I flipped the switch last spring I’ve seen my practice evolve fairly quickly. I can do things I couldn’t do twelve months ago. The flexibility of my legs and back has greatly improved. My lung capacity is greater, allowing me gain greater distance during those beloved cardio sessions. I can almost walk into a handstand.

Lately I’ve been into balancing poses. There’s something crazy about being able to rest your entire body on your hands and triceps. It’s taking time, but I enjoy trying the movements to the best of my ability. Finally, a use for gangly limbs!

In last week’s session I sliced my way through the poses, happy as a bunny rabbit as I hopped forward and back, quickly down into chattaranga with my face mere inches from the ground.

Back up on the exhale, into downward facing dog.

When we went into side plank pose (or, vasisthasana – what did we do before Google? honestly) I was almost boastful in my pose. I balanced on the side of my left foot using my left hand as support. I stretched my right limbs up and out, growing from toes to fingertips, creating what I thought was a flawless line with the side of my body.

Then the instructor walked by.

“Try not to stick your butt out,” he murmured.

What? Who is this guy to critique me so bluntly? Isn’t their a more technical term for that?

And what exactly does he mean? Am I walking around all day without knowing anything? Am I sticking my ass out in life?

A few days later we worked our way once again through class. The girl next to me was demonstrating the ultimate in yogi ninja skills. She flipped back and forth, up and out, in and out of poses, all with the sinewy grace of a catlike ballerina (if ballerinas were in fact catlike, which may or may not be an internet meme).

She erased the preconceived image I had based on our earlier exchange of pleasantries — which lead to notice of a helpful serving of crazy piercings along with quite intricate tattoos.

“I’ll never be as flexible as she is,” I thought to myself. “What am I doing here, thinking I’m actually good at this practice? Am I just fooling myself?”

I reluctantly went through the poses, thinking that I was probably doing it all wrong — likely due to my tight hamstrings, not me — and I’d never, ever come close to the perfection of the tattooed cat ninja.

It came time to go into vasisthasana. She went into a crazy variation by grabbing her big toe, stretching her leg all the way out, then up, then off to the side.

The instructor walked by.

“Try not to stick your butt out,” I heard him whisper.

Ahha!

I wondered if she was as miffed as I had been – she certainly didn’t appear to be. Then again, the class happened to be a strenuous one and as most yogis know, at a certain point it becomes hard to break face when you’re in the zone.

But there was a lesson here.

What I learned, in that very moment, is that yoga is not a race to mastery nor perfection.It’s a continuous journey — one with many peaks, plateaus, and valleys with miniature discoveries scattered along the way. After we conquer one there will be always be another waiting right behind it.

Someone once told me that there will always be something to worry about.

There will always be something to strive for.

The cycle will never end.

We live in the present but constantly make small adjustments to build a future that (fingers crossed) perpetually evolves upward.

I continue to vinyasa with this newly minted nugget stored somewhere, planning to apply it later to my daily routine.

Perhaps even…starting now?

At the end of class I often meditate on my purpose – things like what I was created for and what I’m meant to do in this world. Maybe this is it. Maybe the little actions we take in the present that eventually add up to something larger and more advanced for the future.

So for now, who we are in this very moment should be embraced and rewarded. Because it took some time to get here, too. Even if it means we’re occasionally sticking our butt out along the way.

A Haircut

She feels turned inside out and the people surrounding her are walking skeletons of designer blood and guts.

She’s time-laden and irrelevant, struggling with the heaving weight of grayish bags beneath her eyes. As she looks in the mirror she judges the juxtaposition of what she sees against her surroundings, the disappointing result of that judgement makes her feel pasty, inconsequential and weak.

She told Maya she thought about bangs. She had thought long and hard about it, and in the end couldn’t make a decision – befittingly par for the course.  She concluded at the end of the conversation that went nowhere that – in all seriousness – bangs were probably better than the tattoo she had originally desired.  Maya laughed hard, and it wasn’t just polite laughter because the unmeasured loudness coming from the petite girl startled the gays and their clients, the hangers-on and assistants, the people like her just sitting there observing the surrounding activity in the salon with the tired eye of a time-lapsed camera.

She tried to explain to Maya that she needed a change. Needed, not wanted. She needed to tell herself that she’s no longer who she thought she was. Her insides are not full of dirt, mud and pieces of scrap metal.  She’s pure on the inside.  Clean and positive, motivated and alive.  She has a purpose in life, she thinks.  She must. Otherwise, what then?

Years ago she’d imagine how it looked on the inside. Like an anti-smoking ad detailing the human lung, or the science teacher in high school who passed around a bag of yellow human fat she’d imagine the anxiety stuck in-between her ribs or buried beneath her ribcage. She’d note how large it was and what consistency.  Sometimes she’d breathe through it from night to night, noticing that a week later it would have grown smaller than the previous week.

She’s sitting in Maya’s chair. Maya’s cutting at and detailing the bangs. She wishes she could also trim out the inner isolation. She doesn’t want to exist at this particular moment in time.  She tries to politely chat and pull herself back to the reality of the physical things she can see and feel.

She thinks about a family member who’s perpetually sad.  At family gatherings he’d show up with a case of beer and could be found roaming the backyard examining a leaf, poking at animal holes in the ground, chain-smoking Marlboro Reds and tending to his case of beer.  She liked to name whatever haunted him to be demons.

She wondered if those demons are hereditary, and then think that they can’t apply to me because no one in California has demons. Or do they? “What am I supposed to do now, she thinks, take some Vitamin B?

She wonders what happens when things go genuinely wrong.  The worst panic she’s had is when she thought she ran out of Clinique touch-base for eyes. She almost resents being coddled as a youth and quickly tries to erase the thought as soon as the idea is scratched, not wanting to inadvertently wish any ill on upon herself in the interest of learning a life lesson about hardship and sacrifice.  She grew up with no culture or sense of self, free from struggle or strife.

She feels that her childhood was a blur of nothing. And now she lives in a city full of people who want to be something, and so she resorts to being what she knows.

Twenty Two and a Few (Part 1)

I wake up to the sound of ringing. It could have been the ringing of my ears as a result of last nights party but it’s louder and of course it’s my phone and of course I have no idea why it’s under my pillow.  Oh, cell phones: cryptic tools harboring text messages in Shakespearean lingo like LOL and WTF, blurry photographs of bands I don’t care about, and phone numbers for people like “BurningMan”, Bob Closetalker”, “Jody Stylist?” and “Ryan #4”.

I find a pair of jeans on the floor and crawl into them while darting my half-open eyes around in search of a clean T-shirt. I don’t know why I always look on the floor for clean clothes, a social reflex that only Saturday mornings can provoke.

Put my contact lenses in, do the robotical AM washup.

Saturday morning traffic is great. I sip coffee from behind over-sized sunglasses and pretend to listen to NPR when really in my head I’m rehashing the sociopolitical interactions between acquaintances of the previous evening.

I roll into a parking spot and put all the change I can dig up into the meter. It amounts to 29 minutes total as I conveniently forget that I’ll be there over an hour. “At least it’s not raining”, I irrationally think instead.

My acupuncturist knows I’ve been up late. I can see it at the corner of his smile. I’ve been visiting him since January, in staying consistent with my absolutely inconsistent lifestyle. I wonder when the Friday night pass expires in life – when is it unacceptable to be out until 4:30 am? Perhaps until the wrinkles become faintly apparent in mid-morning to late afternoon light? You know, the light that makes you think to yourself “Wow, times are tough” no matter how much sleep you’ve gotten the night before.

After the session, I leave the office and take a walk down the street. The sunshine is always perpetual in Beverly Hills. It’s like those gaslamps on Beacon Hill in downtown Boston that that never go out. The never-ending light of the affluent.

There are nail salons everywhere and the sun is shining and I feel the post-acupuncture haze combined with my Midwestern consumerist upbringing lure me into a salon. I chose the brightest pink color I can find.

I consider the nail technicians to be a cheap alternative to having an actual therapist. I sit and we talk, or I talk, lamenting about my job, relationships, social scenes. I complain and the woman tells me to be patient and as I glance at my nails as they seem dry but then realize she’s talking about life.

I slightly feel the three pins sticking out of the top of my head leftover from the acupuncture session. I realize the woman with the two toned sunglasses coated in gold jewelry waiting in an armchair for a pedicure is trying not to stare at them. I look back at her and we both smile, silently acknowledging each other’s crazy.

I have an hour to get to the gym prior to meeting the gang at Saddleranch for brunch. Brunch is a loose term for any meal happening before six. This only makes sense because in a town like LA, the traffic is so bad that you can only really make time to do one or two things during the day. Unless of course it’s a holiday in which case the roads are yours for the taking. “Today”, I’ll announce as I walk to my car, “I’m going to the bank.”

If I’m lucky, I’ll make it to Starbucks where I’ll inadvertently wait another twenty minutes for a latte, because let’s face it, everyone in this town is on Venice Standard Time.

This is Part 1 of a series. “22 and a Few: Life as a 20-something in LA”

Growing Up Mall


As far back as I can remember my mom has worked in the cosmetics industry. When I was growing up she was a representative for various brands like Mary Kay, Lancome, and Davidoff fragrance, officiating at various department store cosmetic counters across the greater Cleveland area. At one point there were more than a dozen shopping malls i could reach her at. The phone number for each was pre-programmed and labeled on a crisp white Panasonic land-line located on her desk in our family “den”, looking intimidatingly like some sort of conspiratorial switchboard of which decisions of the highest order were communicated. Until you picked up the phone, pressed a button and someone on the other end answered “Higbees, Westgate Mall, how may I help you?”


I tried to befriend the operator on the other end of the line. I imagined her sitting in a beige room in a design-y chair, filing a perfectly oval-shaped red fingernail  (it was the 80’s so fingernails were filed into an oval shape as opposed to rounded corners – although from what I understand the oval shape is back). She was surrounded by high-end pantyhose that needed to be stocked and was the gatekeeper for when products were allowed to be presented to us plebians-at-large. This telephone operator was fabulous, she had authority. I wanted to befriend this woman; not only because she was fabulous, but mostly because I knew she could connect me to my mom.


The majority of the time, after I was patched through another woman would curtly inform me that Linda (my mom) was with a customer and “unable to come to the phone, sweetie”. Would I mind holding, or would I call back? Of course I would hold – what I had to tell her couldn’t wait. I’d hold for 20 minutes, half an hour, sometimes longer, totally abandoned by my mom’s floozy co-worker as she floated to the next counter to gossip about last night’s episode of Dallas with some overdone woman hawking Estee Lauder perfume.


At some point, someone would pick up the phone to make a call and realize there was a little girl on the other end waiting to speak with her mother. When my mom eventually picked up I would nonchalantly ask her what we were going to eat for dinner, or if there were any good sales going on in the store.


I was 7.


I remember my dad tucking me into bed, giving me a kiss on the forehead and turning off the light. He would leave the door open just a crack and the light from the hallway would spill into my bedroom. For someone my age, the warm light should have provided comfort. It was actually more alarming because it meant that mom wasn’t home from work yet.


After what seemed like ages, I’d hear the mechanical chug of the garage door opening (This was before the chain on the mechanism broke and my dad would prop the garage door open with a broom when it needed to be open. Maybe this was strange but our family didn’t mind. Our neighbor from across the street grabbed on to the bottom of his as it went up and got stuck hanging there).


There would be a jangle of keys as the garage door into the house opened with a staccato cre-e-a-a-k. What followed would later become a Top 10 audio clip from my less than stellar storage bank of a memory, a sound that I amazingly still hear late at night when i’m in need of a visit with mom – the clickety-clack of high heeled pumps walking surely, soundly, across our linoleum kitchen floor.


The sound of her heels never spoke fatigue. They never spoke exhaustion of dealing with prissy women, bad breath and catty midwestern queens. To me, the noise spoke of comforted assurance and strength. It was a gentle maternal presence that quietly assured me that she was home.


After a few minutes the hallway light would snap shut rendering my room completely dark. I’m pretty sure she came into my bedroom to say goodnight, but by then I was fast asleep.


Around that time, my dad was teaching himself how to program computers. He would go on to become one of the leading computer engineers at a top-notch auditing firm. For now he was a guy who read thick programming manuals on the sofa for most of the day and tinkered with first-generation Macs in the basement at night. He had all of these books neatly stacked in our family “den”:  C, C++, Clipper and FoxPro. These books were equally intimidating as they were heavy. Even as an avid reader, the contents were mostly an alien language that my right brain couldn’t bear to comprehend and still don’t (or won’t) to this day.


Usually sporting a white v-neck tee and pajama pants, dad took breaks to play the piano or organ. We had both in our house (among many other musical instruments, which is nothing compared to my grandparents house. I’ll save that story for another time).  He’d gladly order us pizza, chicken wings, or basically whatever we thought would be “fun” for dinner.


Once a month he’d drive me to B. Daltons to see if the newest Babysitters Club book was available. If it wasn’t, I’d be mildly disappointed and choose something remarkably obtuse instead. Sometimes if I had been “good” he’d also buy me a candy bar. We’d go home and I’d settle in with my book on this perfect reclining chair, to which I really do believe I owe my literacy. He’d play a blues riff from one of his many dog-eared fake books. To me he was, and still is, the coolest guy in the world.


Oftentimes my dad, younger sister and I would pick mom up from work. This was when we had one family car. It was an automotive hand-me down from my grandparents – a bright yellow, rust-freckled Chevy that made my already lame attempt at 6th grade popularity even more slighted. The inside of the car wasn’t half bad and if I had more confidence then, the kind of confidence that only comes with age, really, I probably would’ve loved it’s character.


I’d sprawl out in the back seat, pop the cigarette lighter in and out of it’s carriage with my Jansport bookbag casually tossed to the side. I’d sit up, lean back in the sofa-like seat of the sedan, and gaze out the window pretending that I was being driven around a glamorous city as I watched the bright neon lights of Super K, BP gas, and McDonald’s amble by.


Some weekends I’d spend the day with mom at work.  Perhaps others my age reminisce on weekends spent at grandmas house, or perhaps doing something recreational like playing games or taking tennis lessons. For me, it was a shopping mall that I unofficially baptized as my place of fun.


To this day I have an immense love-hate relationship for these manufactured landscapes of falsified desire and need.  I knew how they possessed the ability to suck you in via coupons, spreads in Sunday’s paper and promises of savvy abundance on Memorial Day weekend.  I grew to understand how they spit you out, broke and empty as you search for your car in a blizzard, grasping the plastic handles on the adorably designed bags that took someone 4 years of college and 2 years of design trade school to create.


Meandering around the department store alone with nothing to do as I waited for my mom to take her lunch break, I’d spend time examining the Handbags and Accessories.  I’d feel grown-up as I pretended to select a Swatch Watch. After someone shooed me away I’d ride up the escalator and walk around the youth section that was excitedly called “Impulse”. As I got older I’d spend most of my time here trying on swimsuits and prom dresses, springtime frocks and back-to-school peacoats, twirling around in front of the 3-dimensional mirrors beneath the bright and unflattering lights.


Leaving not a square foot uncovered, I’d skip to the toddler section and browse the baby clothes. I’d put together ensembles for my future infants. I didn’t really want a boy but what a cute sunhat, and these socks are adorable but awfully expensive. However, they display the Tommy Hilfiger logo so my child will be considered to be important by others.  We’d need to get into the country club somehow. Scoping out the infant section actually prompted a campaign in which I informed my parents that I was ready for another little sister. I immediately began to tell the neighbors that my mom had a baby, hoping that the rumor would turn into reality. Years later our in-and-out of town Australian neighbors asked me how my little sister Sarah was doing. I stared blankly at them, totally forgetting my lie.


When I felt bratty I hid from my mom within the spinning, circular racks of DKNY outerwear. When I was feeling obedient I would sit in a chair normally reserved for bored husbands and watch the sales clerks put out new clothing for the upcoming season. To this day, dismembered manequins still make me uncomfortable.


I became obsessed with new arrivals. Because of this I developed a keen sense for seasonal trends. My seasons became Prom, Vacation, Back to School, and Post-Holiday Sale. To my mom’s dismay when it came time for back-to-school shopping I always wanted something ridiculously trendy at the moment like paint-splattered coveralls or a jacket made of lace and pleather. I didn’t get these things and remember thinking that if i owned that pair of Reebok pumps I would be popular and life would be easy for me – it never crossed my mind to actually consider speaking to my classmates.


As I became older and more adventurous, I would venture from the department store into the adjoining shopping mall. Each store was a new world ripe for discovery.


The athletic store smelled of new basketballs and sneakers with grown up high schoolers shopping for soccer jerseys or chatting with their friends who worked there – fit, authoritative adults wearing referee uniforms who when I was around was always on my best behavior.  The jewelry store where I got my ears double-pierced and yearned for a plastic tiara and multi-colored slap bracelets. The pet store where I swore then and there that someday that i would own several birds and let them fly around the house. Sam Goody, where I headed straight for the tapes in the basement to examine the cover artwork and imagine what the music sounded like based on the art.


And of course the bookstore. I liked B. Dalton’s better. I scoffed at the lack of selection as the kids my age assembled puzzles in the back of the store while their mothers quietly browsed the embossed paperback Harlequin novels towards the front.


And this went on for years. I loved things. I developed an impulse to be around things. I needed things, because things meant security and things meant access to the outside world and things meant success.


As I grew older this led to a total fascination with consumerist behavior.


Like most matters we’ve been institutionally taught as a kid, I’ve chosen to unlearn and re-teach myself about it.  Consumer-aimed messages are created by a precise, controlled machine with many moving parts. These messages are intended to trigger a need within us to fulfill the aforementioned assumptions with physical objects, validating us in the space created specifically for us by the machine (I’ll break this down another time, too).


On the outside, we see it as killing time. It fills a void. It numbs us, temporarily satiating us from that and those we need to keep us whole. Later in life I’d go on to study how to create these messages, and in grad school I’d pull them apart.


Today I  appreciate consumerism in a mildly humorous way, like pre-packaged snacks or bad reality TV.  I have a tough time visiting shopping malls. Not because I had a bad experience as a kid, but because I loathe artifacts from the past like re-runs, or macrame. I do, however, enjoy the occasional trip to the amazingly excessive Costco warehouse, or the conquest of a fabulous Prada loafer.


My mom is still in cosmetics. She’s a makeup and portrait artist (self-described as “face painter” on Facebook). We speak all the time now that I live across the country. We gossip and talk about the news and when we’ll see each other next.  I’ve come to learn that the intangible can be the greatest thing of all to acquire.


©  Nicole Cifani, 2010.