The Politics of Mardi Gras Beads

Not only was my trip to New Orleans during Mardi Gras fun and fascinating, it was also educational. I learned about hierarchy and power through the glorification of strands of beautiful, plastic, beads.

photo by Ronald Losure via Panaramio

Mardi Gras beads come with rules. The beads with the name of the Krew throwing them are more desirable than just plain beads, even if the plain beads are a more beautiful color. And the ones with medallions are even more valuable. People will brawl over a strand of gold beads with a Bacchus medallion. I kid you not. A woman gouged my hand with her long, lethal finger nails to snatch a strand of beads from me. But there is also a wild camaraderie in the crowds begging for beads and people will often congratulate you for  catching a good one. Someone draped with 20 pounds of beads is viewed with cheerful respect (25 pounds is not an exaggeration. Real Mardi Gras beads are heavy!). The Krews earn respect by the amount and variety of beads they throw.

The cost of those beads determines who gets to throw them. The wealthy can afford a seat on a float in a Krew while the poor either march in one of the marching bands or stand on the road begging for beads. Young, blond women get the most beads because most of the riders on the floats are wealthy, white men. Not all, and the Krews are becoming more egalitarian as times change in New Orleans. Sadly, I witnessed two young black girls, probably about 10, become heartbroken when they weren’t thrown beads like all the other, whiter children. I talked with their grandfather who explained how black people get fewer beads. He grew up in New Orleans and was now in his late 60’s; his entire family has dealt with the reality and now his granddaughters were feeling it first hand.

The power of the beads extends throughout the French Quarter. Bourbon Street is notorious for young women showing their breasts for strands of beads. This year, the police were writing tickets to anyone who bared her breasts, but women still did it. On one night, I stood on a balcony far above the chaos and watched the people beside me toss beads at partiers below. One young man had a huge strand of large beads and he waived it above the crowd like a fisherman waiving bait at a trout. A young girl stood below him and danced for the beads. He demanded she show her “tits”. She didn’t want to, but the young men she was with on the street coaxed and teased until she hesitantly lifted her shirt. Everyone cheered. The man on the balcony smiled and then tossed her a strand of thin, cheap beads, not the ones she had shown her boobs for. He laughed at her disappointed face. I turned to him and said, “Wow. You’re an asshole.” He called me a bitch. I walked away before I hit him with his giant strand of plastic beads.

The fight for beads was more intense this year because of the dockworker’s strike in Los Angeles. The city of New Orleans had ordered an extra shipment of beads from China, but the container holding millions of strands of beads was stuck in the LA harbor while the dockworkers and the port fought over a labor contract. That meant many of the people in the crowds were from other Krew’s hoping to fill up their bead stock before their parade the following day. No Krew wants to be known as stingy with beads. A group of women in matching yellow t-shirts held a large basket hoop with a box attachment to encourage bead throwers to aim for them. I was told they were from a rival Krew.

After four parades and numerous tours around “the Quarter” I had about 40 pounds of beads to haul home. I tried giving some away but was told by my husband (a native of New Orleans) “No!” Our beads were our booty, something to brag about and hang proudly in the window of our living room. The more you have, the better.

I wonder what will happen to the shipping container of beads now that Mardi Gras is over?

Life is lived one breath at a time

For seventeen years, I have followed a Buddhist path. I meditate, study Zen, read books written by great masters like Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Han, and practice Mindfulness throughout my day. It is because of my practice that I am able to manage the chaos that comes from raising a child with disabilities. But despite all my practice and study and research, I had hit a spiritual brick wall. It was time to find a teacher.

Rev Zenju Earthlin Manual is the woman I consider my teacher. Ever since I heard her speak via a Zen Center podcast, I knew I had to meet her. I read her books, followed her blog, listened to all the teachings I could find, and finally contacted her to ask for a meeting. A few days ago, we met at her Oakland “Still Breathing Meditation Center.”

Rev Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

The first thing that struck me about Rev Zenju was her calming voice and smiling eyes. She seemed tired, but eager to meet me and talk. As soon as we sat, she offered me Jasmine tea and then she asked what she could do for me. I told her about my child, my struggles with grief and worry, how hard I’ve been practicing and learning about Buddhism because I felt it helped me take better care of myself and my daughter, and how I felt that I’d gone as far as I could on my own and I really needed a teacher to tell me what to do next.

She smiled and urged me to stop practicing.

Huh? I thought practicing was the most important thing.

Shaking her head she smiled again and said, “You’re too much in your head. You need to be in your body.”

Then she reminded me that life is not a journey or a path. The eight fold path isn’t a roadmap and there are no steps to master in some kind of enlightened sequence. I have spent so much time studying and practicing I’ve forgotten that the point of all that study is to live. Just live.

“Life is lived one breath at a time,” she said. With those words, a great weight was lifted from my chest. We laughed about the ways we both fight so hard to figure things out and make plans. You’d think living would be easy, but it seems to be the hardest thing for everyone.

Studying Buddhism and practicing meditation has strengthened and sustained me. I have learned how to balance the chaos and have compassion for myself. The basics are there and I know the path. Now it’s time to live.

Breath in… breath out… breath in… breath out…

I hope to return to “Still Breathing Meditation Center” each month and meet her other students. And I hope Rev Zenju doesn’t mind if I call her my teacher.

Still Breathing Meditation Center

“Dancing with the Stars” is the greatest dance porn since “Dirty Dancing.”

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It’s a new season on Dancing With The Stars, which means I am once again obsessing over Cheryl Burke, Valentin Chmerkovsky, Mark Ballas and Karina Smirnoff. I’m watching fierce dance routines and booing the judges as if ballroom dance was a football game. The “stars” don’t matter to me (how many “reality stars” are there on TV?). I love the Pros, the dancers who train, teach, choreograph, plot and scheme their way to the mirror ball. Why do I love this world of spray tan, fake eyelashes and glitter so much? Because Dancing With The Stars is the greatest dance porn since Dirty Dancing, and I love dance porn.

I admit I’m a little embarrassed by my obsession. I’m an intellectual feminist with a Master’s Degree and a publishing company. But here I am, every tuesday morning (I don’t have cable, so I have to watch it online,) applauding Emma Slater’s creative choreography. In the middle of the night, I’m scouring Twitter for #DWTS comments. I become frustrated that I can’t vote because I’m watching it the day after, and I know exactly how it feels to have to TiVO a basketball game because you couldn’t watch it live, and then have someone tell you who won.

Dancing with the Stars is my escape from the chaotic, stressful, overly-serious world I live in. It feeds my inner child who longs to be a ballerina. When I was little, I was obsessed with ballet and longed to be a dancer more than anything in the world, but we lived in Lake County, California, far away from any dance classes. So I practiced plies’ in my room while studying a book on basic ballet positions, eventually screwing up my knees. The love of dance never left me and I was finally able to take my first class in college at the age of 19. I danced in a troupe for five years and loved every minute of it, even choreographing three productions. Later, I choreographed two shows for children. Yet again, I live in a town with limited dance opportunities, and being a mom keeps me home. I channel my longing to dance into my writing and publishing, but the desire has never left. I’m too old to be a ballerina, but I know I would be awesome at Tango. All I need is a teacher.

Every day at 4:30, I dance to electronic music on Pandora. Dancing is how I de-stress. At the end of my work day, right before I switch into my mommy day, I shake my ass as fast as I can in my kitchen. My daughter thinks I’m crazy, but sometimes she’ll join in. Occasionally, a Tango rhythm will come on and I’ll pretend that I’m dancing with Maksim Chmerkovsky (and that man can dance a tango!).

We forget to play when we grow up, and before we know it the burdens of life drag us down like quicksand. It seems we only remember to be silly when we’re on vacation, or drunk. Why not do something ridiculous every day, like Tweeting about #DWTS or dancing for 30 minutes in your kitchen? Ridiculous is good for you. Silly lightens the load. Just ask any 10 year old practicing ballet moves all alone in her room. What is better than dance to make you feel alive?

Forget Resolutions: What do you want to learn in 2014?

Have you ever looked up the definition of the word “resolution”?

Resolution: The act of finding an answer or solution to a conflict, problem, etc. : the act of resolving something (from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

Did you know the word is a noun, not a verb?

How many resolutions do you make each year, and how many are you able to keep?

I stopped making resolutions several years ago because I got tired of setting myself up for failure. I kept promising myself that I would learn to cook and eat better, but so far all I’ve learned to cook is steak. Not veggies or quinoa or curry or even meatloaf, just steak. I gave up promising to get in better shape or be more organized because by March my running shoes were still clean and my date book was empty. But now I wonder if I was making resolutions wrong. If a resolution is a noun and not a verb, then maybe we need to think of a resolution as a tangible thing and not as a goal. Maybe a resolution is more of a transformation than simply the number of hours you log at the gym.

Instead of making resolutions that are about losing weight or earning money, what if we ask ourselves, “What do I want to learn this year?”

I want to learn to be kinder to myself, so I will look for ways to do that. Perhaps I will stick with meditation or read more books or spend more time with friends. Perhaps I’ll do all of that. Perhaps eating more veggies will make my body happier. The point is, rather than beating myself up for not meditating four times a week and eating more broccoli, I will praise myself for all the ways I try to treat myself gently. Rather than telling myself I’m a loser for not getting to the gym, I will tell myself that going to the gym is important because it makes my body happier.

Resolutions are a tool to help you, not hurt you. If resolutions make you feel guilty/angry/lazy/stupid, then they are worthless. Forget resolutions. Think deeper and ask what you hope to learn in 2014. Then find the tools to help you. If the word “resolution” is a noun, why are we treating it like a big, angry, scary verb?