Between Sixes and Sevens

By Ed Staskus

In grade school there is always one kid in class who, when he has to stand up and give a book report, bumbles and stumbles around until it becomes obvious he hasn’t read the book, but the CliffsNotes, or maybe only skimmed the CliffsNotes. If he’s the class clown, it is a lot of fun. If he’s just a schlemiel in the back, it’s sad.

In college or university, you either know your stuff, the stuff your major is all about, or you don’t. There’s no use reading the CliffsNotes, because the teachers have seen it all before, and they just give you an F and move on. They don’t care if you’re an idiot, or not.

If you are at a trade school, forget it, there are no CliffsNotes. The diploma they give you is fitting and necessary. Then when you have your plumber’s toolbox in hand you have to fix the toilet. If you don’t get it right, there is a flood and instead of an F you get fired.

If you are a yoga teacher and you get it wrong, you could hurt somebody, put them in the hospital, or even, if you get it hopelessly wrong, kill somebody. The human body is supple and strong, but it can go haywire. That’s why yoga teachers have a grave responsibility. A plumber can replace a toilet, but yoga teachers can’t replace a life gone down the drain.

Pierre Bibby, chief executive of the British Wheel of Yoga, the national governing body in the UK, says, “Yoga is not bad for you, but bad teaching is.” Bad teaching is fiddling while you work.

CliffsNotes, which used to be called Cliffs Notes, are study guides. They used to only come as pamphlets, but nowadays they are online, too. It got started in 1958 when a Nebraska man and his wife set up shop in their basement. Six years later they were selling a million of their shorthand guides a year. Not reading the real thing turned out to be real big business.

Thirty years later a media and events company paid $15 million for CliffsNotes, pumped up the volume, got on the internet, and produced 60-scond videos about the major literary works of the world. “CliffsNotes lives on today,” they say, “as part of the global learning community, and its mission of changing lives by fostering passionate, curious learners.”

Sixty second bursts of passion, living on crumbs.

If you have a passion for plumbing, welding, or pipefitting, it takes considerably longer than an infomercial to fulfill your passion. It takes a long time. The reason is does take years is that there is no fooling around with those trades.

Like Abraham Lincoln said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Becoming a plumber starts with about two years of training at a trade school. After finishing an apprenticeship, which usually takes three to five years, and passing an exam, you can become a journeyman. A journeyman is someone who has served an apprenticeship at a trade and is certified to work at it under another person.

Another three or four years as a journeyman gets you enough flush master experience to let you take the test to become a master plumber.

Welders attend a technical school or community college to learn their trade. Nobody wants a welder without certification because they work with extremely hot high-energy electric arcs. On-the-job experience is important. They customarily work several years as an apprentice. Certificate programs typically last up to two years. Some go right to work after that while others   continue their education, pursuing degree programs in welding.

A pipefitter is somebody trained in organizing, assembling, and maintaining mechanical piping systems that are meant to withstand high pressure. The systems are usually industrial, including heating and cooling, and involve work with steam, ventilation, hydraulics, chemicals, and fuel.

They have to get it right so that nothing blows up.

Trade schools offer courses on pipe system design, safety, and tool use. Apprenticeships are four-year programs involving work full-time and learning the trade on the job. Apprentice pipefitters work about 2,000 hours a year under the supervision of experienced fitters.

Yoga has a different spin on things.  Teacher training consists of some coursework in yoga history and philosophy, basic anatomy and physiology, and instructional techniques. Hands-on experience is gotten by observing teachers and helping teach classes. Students usually become certified in CPR since fitness centers often require the skill of their instructors.

Most teachers graduate with a 200-hour certificate. They may not be Maxwell “Agent 86” Smart, but they’ve missed it by that much, if not more. You’ve got to be quick on the uptake to miss becoming Maxwell.

Then it’s off to work we go. After the graduation ceremony, out in the workaday world, trying to make a living, networking with other teachers, getting a gig, distinguishing yourself, making yourself into a teacher your students like and respect and look to for guidance.

It is all well and good, but in many yoga studios there is always the new 200-hour Yoga Alliance-certified teacher who barely knows what they are doing. They are not simpletons, exactly, because they have invariably been into yoga for a while, taking classes, reading about the practice, and going to seminars. But when it comes to their body of skill and knowledge, it is bare bones, a skeleton not fleshed out with either learning or experience.

That’s a problem.

Some yoga moves, taught to beginners by beginners, are problematic if done wrong.  William Broad, the science writer for the New York Times who wrote a book called “The Science of Yoga,” gathered evidence that some asanas can be risky business.

“This is not anecdotal, and they are not freak accidents,” he said. “Postures like the shoulder stand, in which you lie on your back and raise your legs into the air, and the plough, in which you lie on your back and put your feet over your head on the floor behind you, that are widely performed, can crank the neck around in a risky way.’”

Postures that reduce blood flow to the basilar artery can cause strokes in some people and can be dangerous. “If the clots that form go to the brain, you can have a stroke,” said William Broad. “And one in twenty people who have these vertebral artery problems can die.”

In 1972 Oxford University neurologist Professor Ritchie Russell wrote in the British Medical Journal that some yoga postures could cause strokes in young healthy people. The New England Journal of Medicine published an article in 2001 citing yoga as something that had the potential to provoke arterial damage.

What are the chances that a yoga teacher who has graduated with only five full-time weeks of training, with a 200-hour certificate, is going to be fully aware of the hazards of shoulder stand and upward bow and all the other upside poses? There is an outside chance, but who wants to bet the bank on an outside chance? Yoga teachers should be able to get to the bottom of everything they do, not be taken by surprise.

The Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine published a study in 2016 that revealed there were close to 30,000 yoga-related injuries that required emergency room visits from 2001 to 2014 in the United States. The rate of “I need to go to a hospital!” injuries per 100,000 people who practice yoga grew from 9% to 17%. There is no telling how many people got hurt and simply nursed themselves back to health at home.

“I see quite a bit of yoga-related injuries,” said Robert Chhabra, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Virginia Health System. “Mostly it’s overuse injuries like tendinitis and sprains.” He noted it was unusual for anyone to suffer a traumatic injury.

“You have to be smart about it, though” he said. “If a pose bothers you, don’t do it.”

There is a condition doctors call “yoga foot drop.” It results from staying in kneeling postures too long, which keeps oxygen from reaching a branch of the sciatic nerve that runs from the lower spine through the butt and legs. The nerve becomes temporarily deadened, causing considerable discomfort.

Yoga foot drop is rarely, if ever, mentioned in 200-hour trainings.

Experienced yoga teachers will tell you it is more important how a pose feels than how it looks. Inexperienced teachers often cookie cutter the class, trying to get everybody to look the same. Bikram Yoga classes were notorious for that approach. How you look in downward dog is far less important than how you feel. It is good if you are getting a stretch in your hamstrings. It is bad if you are getting a pain in your shoulders. It is good if your teacher can correct you at a glance. It is bad if the teacher has to think and think about it, trying to think what the CliffsNotes said.

It is terrific when teachers have the eyes of a hawk, spotting problems wherever and whenever they happen. 200-hour teachers are babes in the woods, however. That is bad if they are your teacher. Babes in the woods tend to bubble. If there was a hawk in the class, the hawk would hunt them down. That would be bad, but good at the same time.

Yoga isn’t meant to be competitive. It shouldn’t be, but it is an ambitious aggressive world we live in, since we are all competitive. Nobody wants to just be mediocre. “People push themselves too far,” said Mollie McClelland, a yoga teacher at the Alchemy Centre in London, England. “There are such huge egos in yoga that everyone wants to prove a point.”

Experienced teachers will slow it down. Inexperienced teachers are slow on the uptake and will encourage it under the assumption that trying hard is a good thing. It isn’t always, but it’s always hard to tell anybody that. The practice shouldn’t have a killer instinct, especially if you want to stay injury-free.

“It’s a myth that it’s safe to do an asana without awareness and consciousness,” says Glenn Black, a yoga teacher with forty years under his belt. He has gone so far as to say that the “vast majority of people” should give up yoga since they are getting it all wrong.

The problem with many of the 200-hour, and even 500-hour, Yoga Alliance-certified yoga teachers out in the world on their first jobs is that they are like the kid in school who didn’t read the book but has to give a book report.

They want to hit a home run, but they are second-string. When it comes to playing hardball, they’re more likely to strike out, and when they do, everybody strikes out with them. Tenderfoot classes are loads of fun and enthusiasm, playlists booming, but they come up short.

Why do pipefitters train like it is life and death but yoga teachers train like it’s a game of schoolyard ball? Why don’t yoga teachers take the same pride of professionalism in what they do as do plumbers, welders, and pipefitters? They train for years. Yoga teachers train for weeks.

Pipefitters lay weld and cement pipes, joining them together. They install automatic controls for whatever is flowing through those pipes. Yoga teachers join body mind and spirit together. They would be better served if they were better equipped to do so, so the blood of the body flowed better, enlivening the mind and spirit.

Many teachers are well equipped to do their work, but it’s only because they have gained experience in the school of hard knocks, not at a trade school or formal apprenticeship. It’s hard to say what the attitude is in Ecuador, Russia, or India, but in the United States yoga teachers get a pass because making a buck at yoga is so ridiculously easy. Five weeks in and you’re good to go. In the land of the fast buck why bother going to the trouble of cracking the books when you can rake it in with a scratch pad of jargon?

Even fitness instructors, who many yoga teachers resemble, usually have a college degree in the field before they hang out their shingles.

The men and women running industries that need pipefitters aren’t amateurs at what they do and won’t stand for amateurs working for them. An unprepared fitter isn’t going to get anywhere, so they have to be well-prepared. An amateur teacher with a bouncy personality a good voice fit good-looking perky balanced and believable can get bosom buddy with their ambition without getting too deep-sea with yoga, at all.

Most people who go to studio classes are amateurs and don’t know the difference between a chakra and a chocolate bar. They deserve a pro, but too often get a greenhorn at the front of the class. Until the standards are upgraded, and yoga teachers are required to get more training, that is what they will keep getting.

Yoga classes aren’t nursery schools. When nursery rhyme-style teachers run the classes, it does a disservice to the practice. Short cuts are taking without thinking. Yoga is a thinking man’s game. It’s the get smart game. The well-spent hard-beaten path is always the easiest in the long run.

Yoga is a long path, not a buttercup. There is no racing to the finish line. It’s more like a big bolt torque, getting it snug, slow and steady, not the latest hip hop playlist gambol. It’s like mountain men tracking dinner, not snacks. There isn’t any nutrition in Ho Hos. The good better best yoga teachers are master craftsmen who have made themselves what they are. Theirs is the shingle on the door to look for, not the certificate from the College of CliffsNotes.

Photograph: Kaylin Oligino, a junior in the plumbing program at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, practices on an oil burner.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street and Cleveland Ohio Daybook To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”


On Thin Ice

By Ed Staskus

   When I lived on the west end of North Collinwood there wasn’t anything unusual about a dog barking. What was unusual was barking that never stopped. The dog was an American pit bull chained all day long to a stake in a front yard two houses down. He was a full-grown pooch, tan with a white chest. At night he vanished and the street was quiet.

   Nobody liked the barking, but nobody worked up the courage to say anything.

   I walked my brother’s dog every day and night and avoided the barker, going the other way. There was no point to messing with a bad attitude. One day I was absent-minded and there we suddenly were in front of him. He was so surprised he didn’t make a peep. We crossed the street. He started barking up a storm. Before I knew it, he jerked lunged and pulled the stake out of the ground. In an instant he was running across the street at us snarling and raging, the metal stake on the chain kicking up sparks behind him on the concrete.

   The west end of North Collinwood butts up to Bratenahl, which is its own posh enclave six miles from downtown Cleveland. The two neighborhoods couldn’t be more different. In the mid-1970s Bratenahl’s median household income was wondrous and North Collinwood’s median household income was lousy. 

   A thousand-some people live in Bratenahl within one shady square mile. Twenty thousand-some people live in North Collinwood within three close-knit ethnic square miles. A two-bedroom two-bath unit in the Bratenahl Towers nowadays sells for between 300 and 400 hundred thousand dollars. There is a $1,000 monthly maintenance fee. A three-bedroom three-bath house in North Collinwood sells for a hundred thousand and change. Maintenance is up to you.

   Bratenahl is a village on the south shore of Lake Erie. It is one of Cleveland’s oldest streetcar suburbs, strategically cut off from the city to the south by railroad tracks and the Memorial Shoreway, bordered by Gordon Park on one side and the Northeast Yacht Club on the other side. The village police station is on the road that dips under the highway and becomes East 105th St, the main north south artery in Glenville. Bratenahl is 98% white while Glenville is 98% black. The neighborhood is notorious for the late-60s Glenville Shootout, back when bussing was making headlines and racial tensions were boiling over.

   Bratenahl’s famous sons are too many to count, although they are trumped by Collinwood’s George Voinovich, 54th mayor of Cleveland, 65th governor of Ohio, and two-time United States Senator. Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel lived in Glenville when they were creating Superman. My neck of the woods was sketchy. There were infamous men in the shadows.

   I could have used Superman when the pit bull charged us. I had a Great Dane, though, who was no dud of a Clark Kent. I let him loose, he whirled on the pit bull, got behind and on top of him, and clamped his jaws on the back of the loose cannon’s neck. When Stu the dog’s owner came running out of his house it was all over in a minute.

   He apologized up and down. I knew he was sincere because he was in the crime business and never went out of his way to apologize to anybody about anything. My best friend sat on his haunches looking out into the distance while we talked. The pit bull smoldered, his eyes getting narrow and red.

   Stu was in his late 20s, single, although plenty of young women came and went. He drove a black 1973 Pontiac Luxury LeMans. It was one of the biggest cars on the road, the size of a living room, rolling down the road like a Barco lounger. He never went into details, but everybody knew he worked for the Cleveland Mob. Stu didn’t call it the Mob or the Mafia. He called it the Group. He made it sound like a fraternal outfit, getting together with the guys to chew the fat.

   John Scalish was the top dog. He took control in 1944 and stayed on the throne of blood for thirty-two years, taking his last breath in 1976 after hardened arteries got the better of him. His gang was allies of the Chicago Outfit and the Genovese crime family. Nobody asked what Stu did during the day, but we all knew he worked nights at the unlicensed not-so-secret members-only nightclub around the corner on Lakeshore Blvd.

   It was a squat one-story building with a flat roof and no sign. There was a no fooling around steel entrance door. A hand-written square of cardboard taped to the back door said, “Keep Away” in block letters. A burly man in a blue Dodge Coronet lay low in the back of the parking lot from dusk to dawn, keeping his eyes open. The joint jumped with babes and booze. Stu worked inside, making sure everybody stayed happy and keeping a semblance of order.

   My living quarters were on Westropp Avenue, a few blocks away. It runs parallel to Lakeshore Blvd. from East 140th St. to East 152nd St. It doesn’t end at East 152nd, where it becomes Waterloo Rd. My front porch was within spitting distance of Bratenahl. I stayed snug as a bug upstairs in the Polish double. Ray Sabaliauskas owned the house, living it up with the pint-sized Asian wife he brought back from the Vietnam War.

   Although I had never had a dog and didn’t want one, I had a dog. He had been left behind when my brother’s fiancée was killed by a drunk driver out in the suburbs, and he moved out after the funeral. I stayed because I could sort of afford to live on my own and liked being within walking distance of Lake Erie. The 39B bus stopped right on Lakeshore Blvd., slowly but surely getting me downtown to Cleveland State University.

   The Great Dane’s name was Sylvester. Everybody called him Sly. I walked Sly and the Family Stone in the morning and again in the evening. Our morning walk was so he could do his business and the evening walk was so he could do his business and stretch his legs. We crossed Lakeshore Blvd. to the open field between Bonniewood Dr. and Overlook Park Dr. Once there I removed his lead, and he ran around like a nut. When he got it out of his system, we walked to the beach. In the winter, if the lake was frozen, we walked on the ice.

   Early one overcast February evening, already as dark as midnight, we were some one hundred feet from the shore when Sly broke through the ice and fell into Lake Erie. He couldn’t get up and out, although he was able to keep his head above water. When I tried to walk to him the ice started cracking under my feet. I stopped. There wasn’t anybody anywhere except us. I had to get him out of the water. It was windy and his whiskers were going frozen icicles.

   I got on my belly and crawled to where he was. I had to be careful. If I fell in, we might both end up in Davey Jones’s locker. I grabbed his collar. He didn’t like it and pulled away. I got a better grip and yanked as hard and fast as I could, getting him halfway out. He got the idea and heaved himself out the rest of the way. When he tried to stand up his legs splayed apart, and he flopped. I gripped his collar and we slowly on all fours made our way to land. I was wet and cold. Sly was wetter and colder. On the way home he stopped and shook himself all over trying to get dry.

   Inside the house it was warm. I rubbed Sly with bath towels, spread one on the floor in front of the living room space heater, and he lay down, licking the big wet spot he was. I filled the tub with hot water and took a long soak. The next day neither of us showed any aftereffects, except that Sly ate two big helpings of Bil-Jac in one sitting.

   In the winter Stu’s pit bull lived indoors. I hardly ever saw the dog. I saw Stu coming and going. He seemed to be on the go day and night. I thought he might be a runner for the Italian lottery in Hough and Glenville, picking up the bets and doling out the winnings. The Ohio Lotto was still more than a decade away.

   Even though Stu’s house and yard was bare bones, it was clear he had dough to burn. The lock on his front door was Fort Knox. He had a big car. The garage door lock was Fort Knox’s best friend. He dressed well and carried himself with confidence. He always had a roll of twenty-dollar bills held together by a rubber band inside his pants pocket.

   What the Group was up to in Cleveland was loansharking, bookmaking, prostitution, gambling, narcotics, and labor racketeering. They were also shooting and blowing each other up. Cleveland was known as Bomb City USA. Danny Greene found and disarmed bomb after bomb targeting him until he didn’t find the last one. John Nardi meant to take over the whole shebang, no matter what he had to do, bombs or no bombs.

   The mobster controlled the Teamsters Local 410. He wanted to control more. Leo “Lips” Moceri was known to be one of the most violent and ruthless criminals in the city. One day he walked into the council hall on East 22nd Street. “Keep your hands off the Akron rackets and get rid of Danny Greene,” Lips shouted at John Nardi.

   “I’ll do what I damn well please!” Nardi shouted back.

   “Do you know who I am?” Lips exploded. “I’m Leo Moceri and no one pushes me around!” 

   They went their separate ways after spitting in each other’s faces. Lips got the better of it since he had more to work with. That weekend he went to the Feast of Assumption in Little Italy where he snacked on cannoli’s and pawed the bottoms of passing teenage girls. He disappeared on Monday. Two weeks later his car was found abandoned in the parking lot of an Akron motel. The spare tire was missing, there were a pair of new shoes in the back seat, and the trunk was drenched in blood. Nothing was ever seen of Leo Moceri again, dead or alive.

   One morning I noticed Stu’s pit bull was panting in the heat of the sun and his water bowl was empty. It was still empty when I got home from Cleveland State University. I filled it up keeping a wary eye on the beast. He slurped it down. The next day it was empty again. I filled it up again and brought a bowl of dried kibble. The dog and I made a separate peace.

   The next day a truck from Animal Control Services pulled up to the curb. Two men got out, one of them threw treats to the side of the dog, and when he turned that way, the other man got a slip lead around his neck. They loaded him into the back of their truck. It was the last I saw of him. It was also the last I saw of Stu. What was left of him was deposited in a closed coffin a week later. The funeral was at Holy Rosary Church on Mayfield Rd.

   Even though many of Holy Rosary’s pioneer members were immigrant stone cutters, the church is built of brick. There are life-size saint statues on top of the facade and the east corner is topped by a domed cupola. It was the first Italian parish in Cleveland.

   After the mass and the procession to the burying ground, I was lingering at the base of the flight of stairs to the street. A tight-knit group of men in black suits were talking nearby. They were smoking cigars and cigarettes. There was a white gray cloud over their heads.

   “What’s the word on what happened?”

   “It was the niggers in Glenville. They stabbed him bad and then emptied a Saturday night special into his face. He was a mess.”

   “Anybody on it?”

   “Yeah, the coons are going to pay, first with what they stole from him, and then for what they did to him.”

   “Who’s on it?”

   “Shon is on it.”

   Shondor Birns was a gangster from the homeland. Even though he specialized in loansharking, he was also the enforcer of the numbers on the black streets. By the time he was 13 and settled in the United States he already had a reputation. The neighborhood toughs steered clear of him as somebody not to be fooled with. He lived by his wits and by violence. When he was arrested and indicted as an enemy alien he beat the rap, but the deportation order against him remained in play. No other country would admit him, however, so he stayed in Cleveland.

   Stu’s car and the loot he was carrying were lost and not found. I never found out if his confederates resolved the issue, whether Shondor Birns made anybody pay up, or not. By the early 1970s homicides in Cleveland set a record with more than 300 of them. Ten years earlier there had been about a murder a week. There were too many going around to pay attention to another one.

   I forgot about Stu and put his homeless dog out of my mind.

   The next winter was just as cold as the one before it, and even snowier. I took Sly and the Family Stone for walks to the beach, but we stayed off the lake. The Great Dane sniffed up the ice but thought better of it. He romped on the shoreline, instead, flailing up and down snow drifts. There was no sense in putting himself and me in harm’s way on thin ice.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street and Cleveland Ohio Daybook To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”