A Day Off in Pittsburgh

Touring days off always start late, they’re usually in a new city

and they frequently involve Mexican food or Spinach and Artichoke Dip.

Pittsburgh PA

Don’t ask me, I don’t make the rules.

However, margaritas are welcome.

Pittsburgh PA

Especially if they’re interesting shi-shi margaritas involving basil and grapefruit juice.

Thus fortified, take a walk around and see the sights

Altar Bar Pittsburgh

Investigate ticket prices and decide $65 is too much, even to see Snoop Dogg on a Monday night in a converted church/bar.

Move on to other curious inexplicables, like “Randyland

Pittsburgh PA

Pittsburgh PA

Which looks a lot like other repurposed trash fiestas in far flung parts of the country.

On Randy’s urging, follow the white rabbit inside:

Pittsburgh PA

And admire his collections

Pittsburgh PA

Pittsburgh PA

Randy promises to come back, but doesn’t. Which is a bit sad. The only thing better than an upcycled garden of delights in the middle of suburbia is meeting the creator and asking my ever present question “Why???”

Pittsburgh PA

Then again, is there ever an adequate answer to that question?

Pittsburgh PA

Ryan’s watery visage says “No.”

I like nonsense. It wakes up the brain cells.

Started here this morning:

Ended here tonight:

I have about 1000 pictures of the Pacific ocean from the California coast. It’s such a difficult thing to photograph and no picture ever captures what it’s like to sit on the beach watching the surf pound on the shore as the sun sets with sailboats silhouetted against the horizon. Magical.

Mostly drove today. Started listening to The Help on audiotape and LOVE it already. I’m very curious how the written version reads. I find the auditory version delectable for the character voices, accents and personalities. Those are hard things to convey in written form.

Notable today: an inventive use of trash at Tio’s Tacos in Riverside:

The beer bottle chapel:

It all feels so familiar, doesn’t it? The creative recycling, the all consuming love of concrete, the folk art and religious shrines. I could ask why (and would have, had the artist, Martin Sanchez, been around) but I’m finding that my questions for these artists go deeper than an hour long conversation about inspiration. I want to delve back and find that first point where they picked up a beer bottle, watched the light shine through it and pictured a wall; or saw a stuffed monkey and decided to make a jungle:

At what point did they need to purchase land to house their collections?

Who was the first person they ignored who said “creating a figure out of bottle caps is ridiculous!”

How many legal permits did they obtain to build their wonderlands? Are there ever enough admirers to make it worthwhile or is the act of creation enough?

After some wondering and picture taking and shaking my head, I kept driving until I ran out of road in San Clemente and then ate delicious ceviche at La Siesta:

And watched the sun set on the beach.

2 reasons to love California.

You have a full week of beach pictures coming at you! Aren’t you excited?

All right, keep it down. The neighbors will talk.

More tomorrow. See you then

Carolina back roads and the Button King

In a break of routine, I did Bikram first thing this morning. It’s tough to get hot and stretchy early in the morning. My body doesn’t want to do it. It pretty much took everything I had just to get out of bed and get to the studio in Winston Salem where I discovered that the owner, Trudy, is married to Bruce, my teacher from yesterday in Greensboro.

Trudy’s a lovely chatty warm lady who made me feel very welcome. She and Bruce own and operate two Bikram studios about half an hour from each other and have considered opening a third. It’s fun to get involved in this relatively small Bikram community. Everyone’s eager to hear what it’s like in other studios and my teacher Michelle, gave me a message to pass on to a teacher in Savannah Georgia when I get there tomorrow.

I’m attracted to teachers with an emphasis on the higher path in their teaching. The lower path is the function of the body and the higher path is the function of the mind and spirit. Bikram – the man who codified the Bikram yoga style – trains his teachers to emphasize certain things and use very particular phrases that form a blend of higher and lower path teaching. But within this framework, individual teachers bring their own style and focus. Insel and Bruce had a strong emphasis on the higher path and talked a lot about what our spirits and minds were doing while our bodies worked. In some regards, a more philosophical approach. Michelle had a stronger lower path approach and was very specific about body placement and the importance of the class doing the poses in sync. While I prefer the philosophical emphasis because I always want to know WHY I’m doing something, as a beginner I need the lower path teaching equally as much right now.

My lesson of the day: Be Still. A hard lesson. I’m getting better at physical stillness between poses – or at least more aware of it – but mental, spiritual and emotional stillness are things way beyond my reach. I’m hoping that the lower path of stillness will lead to the upper path of stillness.

I left the studio and wished I could crawl back in bed. It’s been a long couple days of driving and sweating and seeing stuff and I’m a bit sleep deprived. However, I had an agenda and an end point in South Carolina to see my aunt and uncle, whom I haven’t seen in several years so I got on the road instead.

And it started to rain. And rain. And RAIN. End of the world, torrential, might need a boat kind of rain. Can barely see out my windshield, can only see the taillights of the car in front of me, need to slow down kind of rain. I passed a 7 car pile up started by a taxi hitting the guard rail so hard that parts of the taxi cab were thrown 100 feet away. Scary accident hydroplaning kind of rain. I don’t think I’ve ever driven in rain like that and at one point I just pulled over and waited it out because I couldn’t see far enough ahead of me to drive.

But the storm kept passing over me, or I chased it or something because it would downpour and then clear up as I drove and then downpour and clear up. During the clearer parts I drove the back roads of the Carolinas where tall trees are getting strangled by the most beautiful purple flowering vine.

It’s gorgeous country back there with the farmlands and ancient trees and twisting roads in and out of the hills. And tucked way back in the hills in the tiny town of Bishopville, SC lives Dalton Stevens. Please say hello to the Button King.

He might be the cutest man alive.  His museum, a small church that triples as a recording studio and live music hall and his house are a stone’s throw apart on several acres of land out in the country. I dragged him out of his house to show me his button museum and after posing for me and showing me his button covered pieces, he sat down in his armchair and said “Go on and sit down. I’m gonna tell you some stories.” And then he told me about how he had insomnia so badly in his early 50’s that he started stitching buttons on a suit because his family was asleep and he needed to do something quiet.

His work eventually retired him on disability after doctors couldn’t cure his insomnia and by that point the button fever had a good grip on him and he discovered contact cement so he started covering other things with buttons like cars, clocks, a piano

A toilet.

A coffin for his future use, the red buttons are his favorites.

He’s a musician so he’d show up at local events around town and play his button related songs in his button regalia, Star magazine came down to take some pictures and Johnny Carson saw the pictures and called him to be on the Johnny Carson show. Since then it’s been buttons by the bucket full. He’s featured in the Guinness Book of World Records in some unique capacity and just last week some men from Finland came in to film a cell phone commercial with him in his museum.

He’s 81 now and plays for “old people” at the nursing home in his spare time when he isn’t recording, performing with his band, filming commercials, doing magazine spreads and covering other things with buttons. He says he still doesn’t sleep much but he naps in his armchair and he gets a lot of button work accomplished. He was a complete delight and I’m so glad he gave me an hour of his day.

As I left and the sun was going down, my aunt called with the words every traveler wants to hear: “Where are you? You gonna arrive hungry? Cuz I have lots of food.”

Close and yes, yes I am. Be there soon.

Tomorrow, Savannah.

Crazy rich people and Bikram lessons

Left NYC covered in snow like a winter wonderland.

I planned to stay in the DC area with my cousin, Tracy, but I had a few things I wanted to see on the way. Namely the Mercer Museum in Pennsylvania.

I’m not sure if you know this, but the world is full of crazy people. And a reasonable percentage of these crazies have substantial amounts of cash, a bad collecting habit and a need to stash their stuff somewhere. If they were broke, they’d be hoarders. But with lots of money and ambition they can build themselves fortresses to protect themselves from ghosts (Winchester Mansion in CA), odes to their lost loves (Coral Castle in FL) and concrete castles to house their giant collections (Mercer Museum).

I would recommend a visit to the Winchester Mansion if you’re ever in San Jose, CA. It’s the creepiest strangest place with stairs that lead nowhere and rooms that can’t be accessed from inside the house and a decorating obsession with flowers and numbers. I found the Coral Castle bewildering (how did one man build it?) and sad.

The Mercer Museum is less insane than either of these two houses. Henry Mercer collected 19th century stuff that showed how people lived and worked and he needed a place to put it. For 3 years between  1913 and 1916, he and 8 men hand-mixed concrete, built the forms and then hand-poured this entire 6 story castle with the help of a horse named Lucy.

Some pieces he’d collected were so big – gigantic plows, mill stones, wagons, a huge hand poured cast iron pot for rendering whale blubber– that he built the castle around them and you can’t get them out of the place short of a wrecking ball. There’s SO much stuff, it’s staggering.

Every 19th century craft and job has a room or a floor and there are a few additional gee whiz pieces, like this one for your vampire killing needs.

Here’s the sign.

19th century historians come from all over the world to see this collection. As well as people who are trying to recreate old stoves or glass blowing techniques or whatever. I had an enjoyable hour with the place to myself and then skipped out before my eyes started to blur over.

I spent the rest of the afternoon driving over state lines. I’ve crossed through New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Philadelphia, Delaware, DC and Virginia in one day. I had planned to get to Bikram by 530 for a 6pm class but instead I arrived at 5:55, frantic, agitated, hauling all my stuff in my bag. Just a mess.

The proper protocol is to arrive in time to change clothes, transition from where you were to where you are and let your pulse calm down. Racing in fresh off a 3 hour stint of fast driving, throwing clothes on and running in the door of the studio with my mat was the least great way to get there today. But at least I got there.

The teacher – Insel – took one look at me when I walked in and said “Get ready for class. We’ll take care of the money afterwards.” Then commenced the hardest and best classes of my short Bikram career. He started by asking us to think what we wanted to achieve in class and say it three times with our hearts before we began. I asked for mindfulness – something I’m struggling with right now. When we started it was clear that a lot of people – including me – were having a hard time today.

Bikram lesson learned today: Stay in the room.

3 people left the class today. That’s a Bikram no no. Even if you can’t do the poses, you’re supposed to stay in the room. I think it’s a bit like a rough relationship. Resolution comes by staying in the room. Working at it. Not walking away. I definitely have a rough relationship with Bikram and I did manage to stay in the room but it was tough. I couldn’t do all the poses. I would bend backwards and feel dizzy and sick so I’d sit down or lay down.

Savasana – corpse pose – seems like it should be easy. You’re lying on your back and focusing on your body. But it’s a quietly active pose and also where you reap the benefits of the more active poses. That makes it the most important pose, which is good for me since I spent more time there than I should have.

The other thing that Insel emphasized: The most important parts of the 90 minute class are these 20 second savasana poses. Focus here. When you don’t focus here, you are focusing on your vanity. These 20 seconds are what will change you.

Empty your mind. Breathe. Let go. This concrete floor is big enough to take it all. Let it go.

Things I’ll take with me this week as well as the words of another smart man:

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Tomorrow Appalachians, dinosaurs and North Carolina.