Friday, April 29, 2016

Pilates Teacher Training - The Art of Observing

I've never told a living soul this, but I often daydream about teaching Pilates to the New York Giants, my favorite NFL team. In my boundless imagination, I help Jason Pierre Paul improve his spinal flexibility and teach Eli Manning how to use a stability ball without fumbling it. Odell Beckham Jr. is already quite advanced. He doesn't really need to take my imaginary Pilates classes but shows up anyway just to show off. At the end of class, they all give me high-fives and vow to win the Super Bowl. "We'll win it for you," says my dedicated student, Victor Cruz.

In reality, I'm still far away from being qualified to teach anybody, and the Giants are unlikely to achieve another Super Bowl glory anytime soon. (I'm not a disloyal fan, just a realistic one.) However, I'm as much of a doer as I am a dreamer. I'm working toward becoming a certified Pilates teacher, and the other day, I got to shadow Maria, one of my most well-rounded instructors, in her class. I probably have taken at least 200 classes with Maria during this past year, but there's a big difference between being a student in her class and being an observer watching her teach. As a student, you simply focus on your body and internalize everything you hear. As an observer, it's much less about you and has more to do with scrutinizing, compartmentalizing and analyzing the instructor's teaching technique. 

I'm a pretty good observer. During my observation hour, I took notes and tried to watch people ever so discreetly to avoid coming across as a creepy gawker. I refrained from jocularly heckling a couple of students whom I knew quite well. When someone messed up their roll-down and flopped to the mat, I did not burst out laughing uproariously; in fact, I was quite sympathetic, thinking to myself, "Yeah, I've done that, too...even more gracelessly." My observation ethic was maintained through and through. 

And of course, I learned a lot from Maria. The following are some fundamental things I think aspiring Pilates teachers should pay attention to during their observation hours. But don't bite off more than you can chew. Concentrating on all of these aspects in one class can be overwhelming. It might be wiser to pick only one or two things to be your focus in each session rather than trying to absorb everything all at once. 

Program Sequencing

Program sequencing is a creative process rather than a formulaic strategy. By observing how an experienced Pilates teacher puts different exercises together from beginning to end, you're urged to dissect the program and question the reasons behind such sequencing. Sometimes it makes perfect sense. Sometimes you might be thinking, "Seriously, what the heck?" But that's the beauty of it. The goal is to glide into that mode of analyzing. And if your attempt to understand it turns out to be fruitless, be sure to get enlightened by your teacher after the class. 

Verbal Cueing 

Precision is one of the pillars of Pilates. Doing it right, you get healthier, stronger and nimbler. Doing it wrong, you could severely injure yourself. So all instructions given must be concise, clear and engaging. Maria is an expert at this, and I'm so grateful to be able to learn from her. Articulation has never been my forte. I might sound eloquent when I write, but you have no idea how long it usually takes me to organize my thoughts and finish one blog post! I'm not a natural talker. I'm horrible at explaining things. Ask me to teach someone how to fry an egg, and it might end up being an omelet. So yes, verbal cueing is a skill I really, really, really need to work on.  

Manual Cueing

Manual cueing is a tricky tactic. Sometimes it involves almost a full demonstration. Other times, a shoulder tap or a hand motion is all that's needed. When I first started learning Pilates, a teacher put her hands on the sides of my torso and asked me to push my rib cage into her hands every time I inhaled. That's how I came to understand lateral breathing. Little physical cueing like this can give a clueless student that eureka moment. But it must be done properly, or else it might not help the student at all. And that's why you must observe, observe and observe.  

Student-Teacher Interactions

A Pilates class is like a microcosm. Students have different learning styles, physical conditions and personalities. Some, who are very in tune with their own bodies, might be able to correct their positions according to simple verbal cues. Some need a little extra push with manual cueing. Some are quite inquisitive and ask multiple questions in one breath. And some just really can't perform any of the exercises at all. It was fascinating to watch how Maria accommodated different students' needs and succinctly answered any questions that arose without disrupting the flow of class. This skill, I'm sure, can't be learned from a textbook or mastered in one day. 

Being Awesome and Motivating 

Pilates isn't easy. Even athletes and professional dancers might find it daunting. In most Pilates group classes, however, you don't always see extremely athletic people with superhuman endurance, like LeBron James or Serena Williams. Rather, you might see Hermione, an uncoordinated accountant, or Baltazar, an overweight father of two, or Mildred, a sixty-year-old grandma who wants to stay fit. It's important for a teacher to be able to create a welcoming atmosphere, make a tough workout enjoyable for everyone, and motivate those who may not be so athletically inclined. 

Can I do this? I don't know. I'll try to learn the art of being awesome from Maria as best as I can. Those who are close to me will say I'm quirky and funny, but I wouldn't be surprised if some acquaintances think I'm standoffish and kind of grumpy-looking. I'm like Miranda in Sex and the City (I even married a guy named Steve, too!), not super outgoing like Carrie or so sweet like Charlotte. To be honest, I sometimes fearfully doubt whether I'm cut out for this job. But still, I have to take the plunge. Finding out that I suck at teaching Pilates might crush my soul into smithereens, but it will still be less awful than not trying at all and living with that what-if. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Tank House BBQ

Flanked between pedestrian Pete's Restaurant and dowdy Dickey's Barbecue Pit, Tank House has thrived as one of midtown Sacramento's most popular eateries. Across the street is Old Spaghetti Factory, which, as the title depicts, looks old and serves spaghetti and gives off depressing vibes akin to those from a sweatshop factory staffed by sleep-deprived workers. Not sure if easy competition was what Tank House's owners had in mind when they chose the location. But within these few blocks on J Street, it definitely stands out like a peacock in a chicken coop. 

A BBQ smoker large enough to fit a bear (well, maybe an almost full-grown cub) is exhibited on the patio, seducing passersby with the aroma of smoked meat from late morning till dead of night. In a sense, that is a cruel offense to those on a diet. Imagine this: you're just doing your daily power walk, minding your own business, and all of a sudden, you inhale this scrumptious smell, which then hyper-stimulates your salivary glands and awakens your hibernating inner glutton. You are helpless, utterly helpless. Even if you don't care for BBQ, you're still plagued by a need to devour something. A truck load of something. Immediately. 

As if the smoky fragrance isn't enticing enough, the restaurant's grand and crystal-clear windows blatantly beg us to peek inside. It's always laid-back yet festive. The bartenders are quite busy, the drinkers quite merry. People like to come in groups and get combination platters to share. And once in a while, you'll see some dude with more ribs on his plate than a mere human (no matter what size) can eat in two days. Well, I'm not that dude but can totally understand why one might wish to possess such a superhuman eating ability when dining here. 

It's not quite like the barbecue you get in Texas or North Carolina. This place isn't much about the good old southern-BBQ tradition. Their house-made sauces (one labeled "sweet" and the other "tangy") both offer a gratifying taste of rebellion. A bit strange but not wacky. There's nothing exciting about the menu or meat options, though. Very typical BBQ stuff. No quails, rabbit sausage or rattlesnake burger patties. But the succulent brisket and baby back ribs are sure to guarantee happy taste buds. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Huntington Wonderland

Dear Huntington Library Management,

With all due respect to the original founders, I suggest you change the name of this place to The Huntington Wonderland. I am aware of that one building filled with books, manuscripts, films and historical memorabilia, but the rest of your hundred-something acres are populated with botanical gardens, art galleries, wild geese, and sculptures of beautiful nude humans. Plus, the word "library" might put off some bibliophobes who are too lazy and too moronic to research what this Shangri-La has to offer aside from reading materials. These people may not sound like ideal visitors, but in fact, they are probably the ones most in need of cultural enrichment. You must not alienate them. I understand "wonderland" might sound too broad and somewhat silly. But that's exactly what this place is: a land full of wonders. Last but not least, I would like to share with you some photos from my last visit along with my gracious comments. Look at them carefully and tell me whether they resemble a library to you. Thank you for your time. I really hope you consider my humble suggestion. 

Your loyal patron

P.S. I did not feed any geese or pet any goslings. I must admit, though, that the temptation was hard to resist. 

Before I stepped foot into this desert garden, I'd never imagined one could develop romantic feelings towards cacti. I knew we were of different species. And I could see those pernicious thorns. We would never be like typical lovers. Hugging was out of the question, let alone copulation. But still, my love for them was very powerful and very real. 

My iPhone camera failed to do this jungle garden justice. I was ready to take an afternoon swim in this lovely pond despite knowing it was against the rules. What stopped me was neither a ranger nor my sense of decorum. It was those darn geese. They might be tiny but seemed aggressively territorial. 

Not sure where exactly I came upon this sculpture. Isn't it interesting that the supple archer is aiming at the dome ceiling? More interesting yet is the leaping hound who seems to be asking his angelic companion, "Seriously, girl, what are you doing? You don't have any arrows."

This little discrete area made me wish I had my Shakespearean-actor friend with me. It seemed like a perfect spot for him to recite a monologue from A Midsummer Night's Dream......or a nice place for anyone to enjoy a cup of earl grey and pretend they were at Downton Abbey with Lady Mary Crawley sauntering through the breezeway, and Mr. Barrow, the conniving under butler, lurking behind a rose bush. 

As a Zen Buddhist, I have a profound affinity for Japanese rock gardens. I wasn't really meditating here, though. My mind at the moment wasn't focused on my breathing or evanescent existence, but on those two strangers in the background, trying to communicate with them telepathically, "Stay right there. Don't come near me. Don't ruin my shot!"

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Rainy Day Activities

Early Morning - When I woke up to the sound of fat rain drops pelting against my bedroom window, I thought of a lie my mother once told me. She said it was just angels urinating, generously sharing their celestial discharge with us earth-dwellers. To the six-year-old me, it made total sense. The rain in Bangkok was kind of briny just the way I imagined angels' pee to taste like. Little did I know it was actually acid rain. 

I got out of bed, then thought about walking across the street to get some coffee and see that adorable barista, but that also meant I would have to shower, make myself look presentable to the general public, then spend $3 on something I could as well prepare at home. Remaining unenthusiastic and unbathed, I resorted to stalking him on Instagram. If my husband walked in and saw me smiling at my phone, I would quickly switch to the photo of a Pug wearing goggles. 

I made myself some coffee, ate Chobani Flip, then negated all the health benefits of Greek yogurt by ending my meal with a cold old donut. But before I did all that, I was sure to snap some pictures of my food like a compulsive shutterbug. The idea that my social media followers might not want to know what I was eating was simply ludicrous. 

Mid-Morning - I confronted the tall stack of The New Yorker magazines that I was supposed to read months ago. I went through them one by one, reading only Shouts & Murmurs (aka the humor section) and skipping all the other articles about politics, science, social issues, arts, or anything that would remotely require deep thinking. Half way through the magazine tower, I found the hilarious article "Official Agenda for Your Sick Day," in which the writer chronologized and described trifling things she did on her day off. It sent me into a laughing fit, and within a short lapse of time, an acute depression. The fact that some people were making big bucks writing funny nonsense and I wasn't just pained me. I proceeded to curse myself for being a mediocre writer and juvenile blob. But soon enough, I found comfort in motivational memes, recited some positive affirmations, and completely forgot that my mediocrity was still there. 

Afternoon - My lunch consisted of things my Thai compatriots would normally eat for breakfast: plain rice soup, pickled mustard greens, and pork fu, also known by other names like pork floss, candied pork, flossy pork and meat wool, all of which sounded horridly unappetizing. I decided it wasn't too early for a glass of wine. In fact, I kind of needed it, as I was about to watch a marathon of true crime documentaries. The thought that I was using others' tragedies as my source of leisure made me pause and question whether I had anything more dignified to do. The answer was yes, and yet, I chose not to obey my conscience. For hours, I was mesmerized by Keith Morrison's dramatic cadence as he untangled each murder mystery. Yes, he is old and wrinkly and obviously can't coordinate his jacket and pants, but this man knows how to hypnotize people with his voice. He can say "Oh my!" much more sensationally than George Takei, and make "gluten-free quick oats" sound very naughty. 

Early Evening - My mother called me from Bangkok to vent her fury. It was 7 pm here, so it must have been around 9 am over there. How could she get all worked up that freaking early? The legal dispute between her and my uncle over an inheritance was getting out of hand. Objectively speaking, I find neither of them to be likable. One suffers from self-induced paranoia, and the other shows advanced-stage symptoms of narcissism. But well, one of them had given birth to me. So, reluctantly, I ended up siding with the paranoid. 

Bedtime - My husband was inconsiderately snoring while I laid awake planning a blog post. It would be suffused with trivial, non-praiseworthy, and overly honest accounts of my day, similar to those in "Official Agenda for Your Sick Day." But unlike that writer, my unproductive behavior wouldn't be influenced by an illness. I would be just as idle and miserable and ridiculous as she.......but without a good reason. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

5 Adventurous Ways to Use Fish Sauce

Although fish sauce is a staple in Southeast Asian cuisines, legend has it that the condiment was originally concocted by either the Greeks or the Carthaginians. I have tremendous respect for those culinary innovators who dared to entertain the thought that fermenting two mercilessly salty things like salt and anchovies together might result in something edible. I'm also grateful for my Asian ancestors who embraced this condiment so zealously they put it in almost everything they cooked. Yes, I am a big fan of fish sauce. What's not to love about it? Its deep umami flavor puts salt to shame. Its sodium content makes soy sauce look like a wuss. Even Worcestershire and Hoisin run for shelter when they hear fish sauce is coming. That's how gangsta it is.

To southeast Asians, a kitchen without fish sauce is like a bathroom without soap. I myself have used it to season many Thai dishes: soups, curries, salads, stir-fries, you name it. But today I'd rather not talk about any of those commonplace items. They're way too mundane. Let's explore some more adventurous options and get creative!

1. Add it to a pickling liquid - There's a fun recipe for spicy Asian pickles on Epicurious that calls for fish sauce, rice vinegar and crushed red pepper among other things. Have I tried it? Not yet but I vow to do so. I won't limit myself to only cucumbers, though. I'll experiment with cauliflower, cabbage, green beans, celery, pineapple and maybe watermelon. Why let cucumbers be the privileged one? Other vegetables and fruits can reap yummy benefits from that fishy goodness as well.

2. Turn it into caramel candies - The idea of fish-flavored caramels might make many people panic and shudder. But if you're not afraid, check out the fish-sauce caramel recipe on Cupcake Project, shared by Steph. She's a spunky baker who doesn't shy away from "odd" ingredients. In this recipe, she creates a distinct Southeast-Asian flavor by complementing our gangsta condiment with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. And to counterbalance the fish sauce's sharp taste, she uses dark chocolate, coconut milk, and as one would expect, quite a bit of sugar.

3. Make ice-cream with it - challenges us to try their Thai curry ice-cream recipe, featuring fish sauce, curry paste, coconut milk, fresh basil and brown sugar. This ice-cream flavor may not be (and may never become) mainstream, but the concept is actually not that new. Many dessert artisans have done it successfully. Just last year, I had peanut-butter curry ice-cream at Humphry Slocombe in San Francisco. It was interesting and.......well, let's leave it at interesting.

4. Put it in your booze - Fish sauce can be a creative substitute for Worcestershire in Bloody Mary, soy sauce in Michelada, and clam juice in Low Tide Martini. Make sure you're at least moderately tipsy before attempting such substitution, though. Not to imply that a fish-sauce cocktail might be too horrendous for a sober palate to bear. It's just that when you're drunk, you'll probably be more courageous, and when you're more courageous, pouring fish sauce into your Martini will sound like an excellent idea, and once you have that idea ingrained in your head, your fishy drink is gonna be fantastic no matter what.

5. Weaponize it - The potent aroma of fish sauce is not for the faint-hearted. It's a culinary uranium. Use it properly and everything will be great. If handled with malice or negligence, however, the outcome will be catastrophic.  When I was about ten, I accidentally dropped and broke a bottle of fish sauce in my grandmother's kitchen. No matter how doggedly we cleaned it, the stench still lingered for weeks. So did my grandmother's rage. If you are to adopt this fish sauce usage, think very long and very hard before you do it. My honest advice: just don't.

Disclaimer: Try these at your own risk.  I will take ZERO responsibility for your terrorized taste buds, loss of faith in fish sauce, or erratic diarrhea.