Sound Immersion Meditation

I have never been good at meditation. I have tried it on a few occasions, but I have struggled to steady my mind for more than a moment or two. As soon as I calm my brain it starts making lists of all the things I have to do later, regretting that thing I said to someone 8 years ago, or contemplating what dark matter is actually made of. All things that of course must be resolved immediately.

The only time I’ve actually enjoyed meditation was when I spent 10 minutes overlooking the canyons of Malibu after climbing to the top of a waterfall last week. The serenity of the sound of the falling water against the beautiful backdrop made it easy to let go of everything.

Although I have struggled with meditation in the past, this project is as much about pushing myself to do things that make me uncomfortable as it is about doing things that are exciting.

I was intrigued when I first saw a post advertising sound immersion mediation. The session was held at The Hot Room Yoga and Wellness Studio and was hosted by Massood Taj and Robin Barnes. The description of the event read:

“As the sounds of singing bowls, frame drums, native flutes, gongs, vocal overtoning and other sacred instruments wash over you. It invites you to move into a deep meditative state. Cellular vibrations can unlock unhealthy, stuck emotional tension held within our cellular memory, boost your immune system & cultivate a heightened awareness of your inner world and intuition.”

Here is an example of what it sounded like:

Massood and Robin had a multitude of instruments laid out on blankets surrounded by salt lamps and rope lights, which provided great mood lighting in the dark. They used water drums (a bowl is placed upside down in a larger water-filled bowl and then stuck for a percussive sound), frame drumsTibetan signing bowls, crystal singing bowls, a handpan, energy chimes, a wooden bamboo flute thingy (that was made with bamboo that grows naturally in Tennessee), a Quena (Peruvian wood flute), an african talking drum, a kalimba, and an array of other fascinating instruments.  A nice summer storm added to the soundscape.

The best way to describe it was that it felt like I was being treated to a live version of the music they play while you get a massage. It was extremely relaxing.

I was just as unsuccessful at clearing my mind as my previous meditation attempts, but I did have a few moments of zen when I pictured my view from my Dominican rainforest tree house. The music was beautiful and I loved the experience. If I ever hit the Powerball I plan to hire Massood and Robin to provide the soundtrack to my life.

Taking a Sushi Making Class: A Delicious Way to Spend the Afternoon

After about 14 years of being a vegetarian, two years ago I added fish back into my diet. At the time, I was preparing for a lengthy trial and I was eating even less than I was sleeping. I knew my standard veggie diet was not going to keep me going when I was away from home working 24 hour days. I was staying near Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles, so it was the perfect place to try sushi for the first time. It was love at first bite. (I am still sorting out my ethical dilemmas with eating fish, but that is a story for another day.)

sushi-class

Fast forward to present day and sushi (and fish in general) is now a major part of my diet. Since I love eating it so much I wanted to see if making it was just as much fun.

sushi-ingredients

My friend Amber and I (well, actually we are related, but if I tell you how it will make me sounds a lot older that I am) went to Kabuto in Richmond, VA to take a private sushi class with their sushi chef.

making-sushi

We each got to select 3 rolls we wanted to make. Amber chose the Fire Cracker Roll (tuna and scallion roll topped with red pepper); Cajun Roll (shrimp tempura, fish eggs, avocado, and spicy mayo); and a California Roll. I selected the Dynamite Roll (tuna, yellowtail, and spicy mayo); Killer Roll (eel, avocado, with tempura flakes on top); and a Philadelphia Roll (because I just can’t get enough cream cheese).

sushi-lesson

We started with a lesson on how to make the sushi. You begin by grabbing a large clump of rice, somewhere between the size of a large egg and really small baseball. The rice is then spread across the nori (the seaweed paper that comes with sushi). I probably went a little heavy on the rice . . . because rice is delicious.

philadelphia-roll

Once we lined the nori with rice, we flipped it over to add our ingredients. I wanted to pack the roll, but a little went a long way.

sushi-roll

Then it was time to roll! Much like in life, you gotta keep it tight to keep it all together.

rolling-sushi

We used the bamboo sushi rolling mat to compress and shape the rolls to be nice and pretty.

cutting-sushi

All that was left was to slice the rolls. The trick was to have a slightly wet blade and saw through the roll rather than trying to slice it.

finishing-sushi

Voilà! Just a few finishing touches and I had a full plate of scrumptious sushi!

finished-sushi

We loved our sushi making class and the results were delicious. Having the private lesson (and a chef willing to take photos of us) made the experience extra special. Plus, any new experience where you get to eat your creation can’t be bad!

Laughter Yoga: Post-Election Recovery

Well, this has been a hell of a week, hasn’t it? Regardless of your political beliefs, or expected or desired outcome, this election has been tumultuous. Like most of America, I needed a break. In order to inject some joy into my life I reached out to laughter yoga.

Laughter yoga surprisingly has no yoga in it. Instead, laughter yoga is a class that promotes prolonged voluntary laughter. Laughter yoga was developed by the Indian physician Madan Kataria and is based on the belief that voluntary laughter provides the same physiological and psychological benefits as spontaneous laughter.  Some studies have indicated that laughter yoga can reduce pain, stress, and blood sugar, and can help with short-term memory. I can’t speak to the validity of these studies, but I can say that it lifted my spirits.

Our class was filled with silly laughter. It was like improv combined with children’s playtime. We started with pretending to be squirrels, running around eating imaginary acorns and giggling wildly. I immediately realized I had no idea what I signed up for. The absurdity continued from there. We were tittering trees, cackling mad scientists, chuckling penguins, and snickering sandpipers running into the ocean waves. We also tossed around an imaginary ball, that would send the person who caught it into a fit of laughter. The goofiness of the class meant that I did not need to force my laughter. It was real and infectious laughter. Each activity is concluded with childlike clapping of your hands and shouting “Very good, very good, yay!”

When I first told friends I planned to go to the class, many said they were not up to it after a very stressful week. However, once I described how fun and uplifting it was (and how they didn’t actually have to do any yoga) many expressed a desire to try it out in the future.

I immersed myself in the class and therefore did not take any photos or videos of my experience. However, if you are interested, here is a sample of what the class was like:

Flavor Tripping: The Miraculous Power of the Miracle Berry

It sounds like something only Willy Wonka could dream up: a berry that makes everything sweeter. Well, it is real and it is magical. Or, I should say, it is miraculous. The miracle berry causes sour, tangy, or tart foods to taste as if they have been dipped in sugar.

miracle berries

Photo by MiracleFruitFarm

It is called “flavor tripping,” and no, miracle berries are not a drug. This little red marvelous fruit originates in West Africa and its use was first documented in the 1700s. Local tribes used it before consuming sour cornbread, bland oatmeal gruel, and palm wine.

Miracle berries contain the chemical “miraculin,” which turns your tastebuds topsy turvy. Miraculin binds to your sweet taste receptors and sends them into overdrive if the pH of your mouth drops into the acidic range from something sour. In other words, it turns lemons into lemonade. The sweet effect lasts for 1-2 hours.

If you don’t have access to miracle berries you can buy them in pill form (the only ingredients are miracle fruit powder and corn starch).

mberry tablet

You place a tablet on your tongue and let it dissolve. As Morpheus explained, “You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

morpheus-red-pill

We tried an assortment of lemons, limes, blackberries, strawberries, kiwis, apples, grapes, prunes, cranberry juice, and balsamic vinegar. I reached for the lemon first. It tasted like it was covered in sugar and the normal tartness of the fruit was nowhere to be found. The same was true for the lime. It reminded me fruit slice candy. All of the fruit tasted sweeter than normal, but the strawberries tasted like they were sprinkled with fine powdered sugar. The most interesting flavor transition was that of the balsamic vinegar. The miracle berry transformed it into a sweet, thick, grape juice.

A few days after my first experiment, I did a second tasting of grapefruit, pomegranate, more lemons (yum), jalapeños, onion, pickles, and coffee. Once again, the fruit tasted extra sweet and the pickles did as well. The onion still tasted like an onion (yuk) but the jalapeño was rendered virtually tasteless, it lost all of its kick. The best part of experiment number two was the coffee. The straight black coffee became creamy and sweet.

miracle-berry-tasting

If you want to try flavor tripping, just make your own tasting menu with a variety of foods to explore. The miracle berry can have some lingering effects so it is best to try it at the end of the evening when you are done eating for the day. In other words, don’t try to have a glass of wine post-tasting. It will not go over well.

My First Obstacle Course Race: The Insane Inflatable 5K

Two things you should not do: (1) Attempt to run a 5K when you literally cannot remember the the last time you ran, and (2) attempt to do so when it is 90 degrees outside. But if you are going to do it, it might as well involve a dozen or so awesome inflatable obstacles. Last weekend the Inflatable 5K visited by town and I took that opportunity to tackle my first obstacle course race.

Inflatable 5K Starting Line

The race started with a climb up inflatable steps and a slide down the other side. Game on.

Inflatable 5K Big Balls

All of the obstacles were a little bit different. The one pictured above (“Big Balls”) was full of, well, giant inflatable balls.  You had to push your way past the 5-foot orbs to make it through to the other side.

There were volunteers at every inflatable offering encouraging words. Considering how hot it was outside, I am really not sure who had it harder, the people running or the volunteers standing in the sun. Either way, I really appreciated having them there.

Inflatable 5K Slingshot Climb

The “Slingshot” was the first obstacle (of several) with a rope climb. This probably would have been a little less difficult had I not also been attempting to carry a GoPro.

Inflatable 5K Crash Course

It was only 9:30, but the blaring sun made some of the obstacles a bit scorchy on the skin. It was definitely motivation to get up quickly and keep moving.

Inflatable 5K Wrecking Balls

Some of the obstacles were surprisingly difficult, like the “Mad House.” There was something about running up and down a a moving surface that made each step simultaneously more fun and more challenging.

Inflatable 5K Mad House

When I signed up I intentionally chose a wave that had fewer people in it. However, in hindsight, I wish I’d picked a fuller wave.It was a lot more enjoyable when there were several people scrambling on an inflatable at once.

Inflatable 5K Finish

The finish line had the biggest slide of the day. It towered over the starting line next to it. I slid to victory, anxious to collect my first medal and sit down to a delicious carb-filled breakfast.

Inflatable 5k Finish Line

Walking in to the event I overheard a woman exiting say that it was the hardest 5k she’d ever done. At the time, I thought to myself that it couldn’t be that bad and it was just a bunch of bouncy houses. It turns out she was right. The 5k was surprisingly exhausting. I keep telling myself it was the heat and not the excessive amount of time I spend sitting at my desk each week. Either way, I am looking forward to the next one.

My Skin Cancer Diagnosis—And Why You Should Get Checked Too

A few weeks ago I was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma, a common form of skin cancer. It was not something I ever expected to deal with. I don’t go to tanning beds, I don’t sun bathe, I cover up, and I always wear sunscreen. I thought I was doing everything right. I was doing everything right. Despite that, I still got skin cancer decades before the average person.

Before Skin Cancer Surgery

I first discovered the spot on my shoulder about two years ago after a day in the sun at Steeplechase. At the time, I thought it was just a rash or a scrape or some other innocuous weird human body thing and just ignored it (see below for a what-is-that-red-mark-on-my-shoulder-selfie). For the most part, it didn’t bother me, it didn’t seem to grow or change, and most of the time I barely noticed it. I assumed it was nothing.

Approximately a year later, I saw a Facebook post (caution: graphic photos) by a young woman named Tawny Willoughby. At just 21 years old Tawny got her first skin cancer diagnosis. After six years and several more occurrences, she shared her story to warn others. It was her post, and her description of her symptoms, that made me first suspect that the mysterious spot on my shoulder might actually be skin cancer.

I finally scheduled an appointment for myself a few months later. You might be asking yourself why it took me so long to go to a dermatologist to get checked out after I realized I might have skin cancer. The answer is simple: I am an idiot. I let things like work and fear and stubbornness get in the way of me taking care of myself. I don’t really have an excuse for it. Trust me, any excuses you have for not going aren’t very good either.

Skin Cancer Surgery

Basal cell carcinoma is caused by sun exposure. I used to think that skin cancer just appeared as oddly shaped moles. However, it can appear in many forms. Additional symptoms can include: rough or scaly red patches that do not heal or possibly bleed on and off or crust; patches with itchiness, tenderness, or pain; raised growths or lumps; pearly or waxy bumps; flat, flesh-colored or brown scar-like lesions; and a long long list of other possibilities. Essentially, if it looks different, go get it checked.

The spot on my shoulder was just a red patch that looked relatively normal unless I spent a day in the sun. When that occurred, it would become sore and raw. I committed the cardinal sin of looking up my symptoms online. It seemed like classic basal cell carcinoma. A trip to the dermatologist and a biopsy confirmed my suspicions. When the nurse called to tell me the news I responded by excitedly shouting “internet diagnosis for the win!”

The solution? Surgery.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

I am recovering nicely from my surgery. The first few days were a bit of a pain because my movement was rather limited. I have two layers of stitches (internal and external). But in a few weeks I’ll be good as new. Plus, I’ll have a fun new scar on my shoulder that will make me look dangerous.

I am lucky. Basal cell carcinoma is pretty treatable. It is malignant, but slow moving and rarely metastasizes. It is basically the pot head of the cancer world. However, studies show basal cell and other skin cancers are linked to higher risks of other forms of cancer (such as breast, colon, bladder, liver, lung, brain, prostate, stomach and pancreas). I already had a pretty high incidence of cancer in my family’s history. This is one more reason for me to be vigilant and get my annual checks.

I hope this post will motivate you to go get a screening. If my cancer had not been on my shoulder, I might not have seen it and could have let it grow for years unchecked. It would have turned a very treatable situation into a disastrous one. It doesn’t matter how young or “careful” you think you are, go see a dermatologist. It could save your life. (And please share this post to encourage your friends to do the same).

Cooking & Eating a Ghost Pepper

The ghost pepper, or the bhut jolokia, is insanely hot. In fact, it is one of the hottest peppers in the world. At 1 million Scoville heat units, the ghost pepper is 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce. It is so hot it has been weaponized for use in pepper spray and it is even used as elephant repellent in India. Yes, elephant repellent. As a spice lover, this intrigued me. I have always loved spicy food and I am a firm believer that if I am not physically uncomfortable eating then the food isn’t hot enough.

Ghost Peppers

This weekend, while visiting Nashville’s farmer’s market, I discovered Swafford Farms selling a variety of fresh peppers with beautiful ghost peppers front and center. I remembered I saved a ghost pepper recipe for just such an occasion and pulled it up on my phone to see what else I needed.

Ghost Pepper Recipe Ingredients

Fortunately, Fresh and Local Produce at the farmer’s market was able to provide me with the rest of the vegetables. The recipe called for:

  • 6 ghost peppers
  • 1 small red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, pureed
  • ½ medium onion, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, cut in half
  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon organic sugar

Ghost Pepper Copped Ingredients

I prepared all of the ingredients and saved the ghost peppers for last. Before I chopped them I had to taste one for myself.

At first, it tasted like every other pepper I’d had and was a pretty mellow experience. Then, I bit into the inside of the pepper and and one of the seeds. The heat had a delayed reaction. Initially there was nothing, and then the heat slowly took over my entire mouth. It was not nearly as bad as I excepted, but I cannot deny that the peppers had some serious heat. No tears were elicited, but I did turn to a large glass of milk for relief.

Ghost Pepper After Effect

Here is your science tip for the day boys and girls: The chemical that causes the heat in peppers (capsaicin) is not water soluble so drinking a glass of ice water will not soothe your tongue. In fact, water will only spread the heat. Instead, you need something that will break down the capsaicin. Casein, the protein in milk, helps break the bonds capsaicin forms on nerve receptors.

Bonus science tip: Vegetable oils will also break down the capsaicin. If you deal with peppers with your bare hands (which is not advisable) be sure to wash your hands with oil a few times. Soap and water alone will not do the trick and will leave you pretty miserable if you rub your eyes with even trace amounts of the capsaicin still on your fingers.

Ghost Pepper Chopping Gloves

When I began cutting the peppers I followed the rules and used gloves to protect my hands.

Ghost Pepper Chopping

However, I quickly realized that the gloves made dicing nearly impossible and decided to risk it. The peppers definitely made my fingers burn a little, and even a day later, after washing my hands with oil several times, I have not attempted to take out my contacts. Ghost peppers are powerful stuff.

Ghost Pepper Salsa Making

Finally, it was time to combine all of the ingredients to make the salsa.

Ghost Pepper Salsa Ingredients

You just throw everything in a pot, bring it to a boil, and then reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes.

Ghost Pepper Salsa Ingredients Stove

The salsa made the house smell amazing. The fragrance still hung in the air when I got home from work the following day.

Safety tip: Do not put your face over the pot while you are cooking. It is essentially steamy pepper spray. (Fortunately, I did not have to learn this the hard way.)

Ghost Pepper Salsa

I varied the recipe slightly. The recipe calls for the ghost pepper seeds to be removed. This is because the capsaicin is very prominent in the pepper’s seeds. I, however, love spice so I left them in. The recipe also called for the salsa to be blended until it becomes a smooth sauce, but I preferred to to be chunky so I could enjoy it with chips. If I were to make it again, I would definitely add more ghost peppers, more bell peppers, chunkier tomatoes, a heavy dose of cilantro, and a little bit of chopped garlic.

Ghost Pepper Salsa Spicey

The salsa had some kick, but after the first bite (captured above) I got pretty used to it. In fact, I haven’t been able to stop eating it. My friend Tina, however, had a different reaction. She took one bite, shouted “THAT IS UNACCEPTABLE,” and then ran for a drink to cool her mouth.

So, in the end, the ghost pepper experiment went well and just confirmed my love of all things spicy. Plus, now that I know that making salsa is a simple as a quick trip to the farmer’s market, I am not sure I’ll ever buy it from the store again.

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