Spanky and Our Gang

By Ed Staskus

When the Soviet Union was in charge, there wasn’t a Mafia in Lithuania. The Russians wouldn’t allow it, since they were the Black Hand themselves and didn’t brook any competition. But as soon as they were gone in December 1991, it was a different story. The next day the Lithuanian Mob popped up like poisonous mushrooms after a spring rain.

You couldn’t operate a pint-sized kiosk built onto the side of your house selling gum, chocolate, and cigarettes without being on the lookout for them. They would appear in their track suits demanding protection money, or else. It was like Spanky and Our Gang, except or else meant they would burn your house down, whether you were in it, or not.

Little Scotty, Spanky’s best friend, always said, “That’ll learn ‘em.” Of course, he was only eight years old, and hardly knew what he was talking about.

If you paid up, you could sleep quietly at night. If somebody went into business across the street, all you had to do was tell your Mob man, and the competition disappeared. If you were looking for cheaper gum, they could point the way.

It wasn’t just businesses, big and small, that paid protection money. That’s what the Mob called it, although everyone else called it extortion. It was like 1930s Chicago, set in the new frontier world of Eastern Europe. It was all up for grabs.

“Whenever I stayed in Vilnius in those years, the 90s, I stayed at Birute’s bouse, who was a friend of my mother,” said Rita Staskus. “Her husband built her a big house and the first time I saw it I thought, the Lithuanian Mob has got to have their eyes on this house. I hope she has police protection, although they weren’t much better than the Mafia.”

Corruption was so endemic after Lithuania achieved independence that the Internal Investigation Service was established in 1998 with its own jurisdiction. It was on top of the Immunity Service, responsible for preventing and investigating corruption within the police force.

Targeting malfeasance became more urgent leading up to the country joining the European Union in 2004. Europe has long prided itself on its trustworthy police services. Only Croatia had more fast and loose law enforcement. Lithuania introduced a score of anti-corruption measures, to little apparent effect. More than 60% of the country continued to believe crooked lawmen were still widespread.

If you can’t trust the cops, who can you trust, although it’s best to never trust a policeman in a raincoat, especially if it’s not raining. Unless he’s Columbo, who always wore a raincoat, rain or shine. He always wore the same one. “Every once-in-a-while I think about getting a new coat, but there’s no rush on that, since there’s still plenty of wear in this fella,” he explained.

“One of my cousins could have used a policeman the day she lost her kid,” Rita said. “But they’re not always there when you need them.”

It was winter when she picked up her six-year-old from school, sitting him down in a little red wagon, and pulling him along behind her. Somewhere down the line he fell out. She didn’t notice, sloshing through the snow, until she got home. When she did, she rushed back, but he wasn’t anywhere on the path they had taken. Sunset in Lithuania in early January is at around four o’clock. There wasn’t a badge in sight. She finally found him making snow angels on a side street by himself in the darkness.

Another cousin had a son, Gytis, who was grown up, and got involved with the Mob.

He owed them money but wasn’t able to pay up. They were looking for their loot. When they got tired of waiting, they rigged his car up to explode. The next morning, when he started it, it blew up, but they hadn’t used enough explosive. Gytis was burned and hurt, breaking an arm in the blast, but survived.

“I had to go from Vilnius to Marijampole one night and my relatives sent Gytis,” Rita said. “I couldn’t believe it. Why Gytis? The Mob was after him! His arm was in a cast and he had a friend with him. His friend was from Samogitia and I could barely understand a word he said. It didn’t help that he was smoking and coughing up a storm.”

They were driving a beat-up Trabant, an East German car, which aged fast. It got old the minute it rolled off the assembly line. Car ownership was exploding in Lithuania, but it was the best they could do. Gytis put her in the back seat and told her to lay low. They didn’t take the highway or the secondary roads. They drove back roads, which were barely roads, at all. They ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere.

“Stay here,” Gytis said when he and his friend tramped away.

“It was dark as could be,” said Rita. “I stayed in the car because there was nothing anywhere.  I would have just been wandering around, having an out-of-body experience.”

After more than hour, Gytis and his friend came back with a bucket of gasoline. She didn’t ask where they found it. When they finally pulled into the driveway of her Uncle Justinas’s house, she jumped out of the car, nearly flinging the Trabant’s back door off the hinges.

By the time Gytis grew up, he was fatherless. His mother went through three husbands. She left the first one after he tried to kill her twice. One day he wired the front door lock so she would be electrocuted when she put her key into the lock. It didn’t work. Another day he veered off the road and rammed the passenger side of their car into a tree. She was unhurt, although he was a mess.

Her second husband was working at Chernobyl in 1986 when the nuclear power plant there melted down into a core fire. Even though he returned home, he suffered from radiation poisoning, and shortly afterwards committed suicide. She took care of his grave faithfully, decorating and cleaning it. Her third husband was a good man, but a year after their marriage she came home from her job as a seamstress to find him dead on the floor from a heart attack. After that she gave up and stayed a widow.

“My Uncle Juozukas had a son, Edvardas, who was a policeman, and he always told me to watch out for the police,” said Rita. “He said they were rotten through and through.”

“Make sure you always have cash with you if you’re ever driving alone, because if you get stopped by them, you will have to pay them,” Edvardas said.

“You mean I will have to pay the fine right on the spot?”

“No, you will have to pay them off right on the spot. Otherwise, they will keep you on the side of the road all day until you do.”

Her cousin Mikolas shook his head up and down and said, “That’s right. They will stop you even if you haven’t done anything.”

The year before, after the birthday party his parents threw for him, the police were waiting outside and followed him home. They were after his birthday money.

“Maybe somebody told them about the party, maybe not, but I had to hand all of it over,” said Mikolas.

The police car parked behind him when he pulled into his driveway. One of the policemen counted the money he finally handed over and said, “It’s not nearly enough, since I have to pay some of it out back at the station, but OK.” He threw the birthday cards and envelopes out the window.

“You are scum between my toes,” is what Spanky and Our Gang used to say.

When Mikolas asked what he had done, they said, “Nothing, really, and make sure it stays that way.”

Edvardas was an honest policeman and he couldn’t handle or condone the corruption. He quit the police force after a few years. Sometimes you have to live with yourself, not the rotten apples. There’s no sense in letting canker have its way.

When Rita asked her Uncle Juozukas how much he paid the Mob for protection when he was selling gum, chocolate, and cigarettes out of the kiosk he built onto the side of his house, he said, “Peanuts.”

But there were lots of peanuts up and down and all around the country, as well as bags of peanuts, and truckloads of peanuts, and it all added up to keep the crime wave going full steam ahead. At least until the engine got overheated. When it did there was hell to pay.

After journalists, businessmen, and prosecutors started getting murdered by the Mob, the country got good and shocked, and repercussions soon followed. The Vilnius “Godfather” Boris Dekanidze was put to death while the Kaunas “Godfather” Henrikas Daktaras was locked up.

In the 1990s the Mob employed persuasion, intimidation, and violence to get what they wanted, including scooping up public property for themselves. Everything was on tap on hand on deck. In the new century the worm turned. They put away their tracksuits and put on business suits, employing persuasion, intimidation, and bribery to get what they wanted. It wasn’t lowlifes cashing in on the gum and cigarette market anymore. It wasn’t stealing cars. It wasn’t bringing a trunkful of booze back from Poland. It was the high life cashing in on state and private legal and illegal deals, drugs, sex trafficking, internet gambling, and money laundering.

They stashed their brickbats and repositioned themselves as venture capitalists.

Not all of them, though. Some stayed true to their roots. Three years ago, more than three hundred armed policemen at the crack of dawn broke down the doors of a hundred homes and apartments and arrested members of ONG, the country’s most dangerous crime group. Lithuanian ARAS units dragged away dozens of groggy men wearing tracksuits, hands handcuffed behind them. The haul included “a large number of automatic and semi-automatic firearms, ammunition and explosive substances,” according to a Europol press release, as well as a boatload of sports cars and luxury sedans.

They operated out of Kaunas, smuggling guns and drugs, keeping their shady lawyers and accountants busy.

The mobsters used “various money-laundering schemes that involved legal entities and limited ownership of assets worth millions of euros and maintained strong links with other organized criminal groups in Lithuania and abroad,” a police statement reported.

The way most crime lords see it, you can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone. Their guns gone, there wasn’t much they could say. Kindness wasn’t part of their vocabulary.

In the end, inside police stations and in the dock, few kind words were spoken. There was rude spanking on the horizon on the way to prison. Alfalfa, Spanky’s right-hand man, had the last word when asked if he had any last words for the evildoers.

“Yeah, uh, see ya!”

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

Hand on the Plow

By Ed Staskus

“Keep your hand on the plow, hold on, hold on.” Mahalia Jackson

Yoga is one of those things in this world that’s between the nothing that isn’t there and the nothing that is, except that somebody is always trying to make it into something. Although it’s true God made everything out of nothing, it’s also true the Big Bang will one day become the Big Crunch, when everything will collapse into a final singularity of nothing.

Hold on, it’s going to be a wild ride.

There’s a lot to like about the practice. There always has been. There will probably be a lot to like about it for a long time to come. It’s a practice with a get it done now point-of-view and a going going gone view of things, too. It is practical and spiritual, hands on about what is right in front of you, and tuned in to the bigger picture at the same time. It is getting physical and metaphysical, all on one plate, without blinking an eye.

There’s a boatload of tradition to it, but it isn’t necessary to know everything about it to practice it. Teachings and teachers are a big help, but past the point of breathing and meditation and concentration and staying on the good side of the Golden Rule, it is a practice accessible to everyone because it is within everyone.

Everybody knows it’s better to be considerate rather than merciless, generous rather than greedy, rock steady rather than raging. It’s only the wise guys, our politicos machine gunners bankers power brokers movers and shakers and parade makers, who don’t have the wisdom to see past their noses.

One of the reasons they are horse blinkered is because their noses have grown so long they can’t see around them anymore. It ain’t the yellow brick road anymore when it leads to Orange Julius in the Oval Office.

The practice of yoga doesn’t demand you sign on the dotted line. It doesn’t squeeze you into any forgone conclusions. It doesn’t ask for your loyalty. What you get out of it is what you put into it, not the other way around. There’s no Church of Yoga or Chamber of Commerce of Yoga or Supreme Court of Yoga. It’s a way of life anyone can practice in their backyard, at work, and out in the wide blue yonder.

It is lucid able-bodied eye-opening. It is living and breathing with your heart in the right place. What’s not to like?

The fly in the ointment is asana practice. If the other seven limbs of the eight limbs of yoga make all the sense in the world, why does what passes as yoga on the mat pass itself off as the by the book way to work out in order to sustain health and fitness so that our minds spirit energies stay strong and on track?

There’s always something sketchy about orthodoxy.

When did you start needing a fitness membership at a yoga studio in order to practice yoga?  Why are there so many yoga classes at Planet Fitness Gold’s Gym Anytime Fitness? Does anybody just make it up at home for themselves anymore, or not?

Where did the idea come from that performing an ordained sequence of physical postures will get you closer to equilibrium? It’s as though your doctor wrote you a prescription for the up dog side angle touch your toes pill as a catch-all remedy for what ails you.

Why does Yoga Journal spit out articles like ’38 Health Benefits of Yoga’ month after month?

If not a cure-all, yoga is often touted as the Swiss Army knife of fitness.

The idea behind today’s yoga exercise sequences seems to be that what makes “a true yogic practice unique is that its focus is on sustained feeling of freedom and wholeness,” according to Alanna Kaivalya, author of “Myths of the Asanas: The Stories at the Heart of the Yoga Tradition”.

In step with that definition, however, anybody with a million dollars in the bank is having a true yogic experience, because that much money in the bank is a no-brainer for feeling free and whole, no matter how you got the greenbacks or what you plan on doing with them.

The only problem with having a million dollars is that there are always a million guys trying to take it away from you. That’s where aparigraha comes in handy. It is one of the ten yamas and niyamas, the guidelines of the practice. It basically translates to non-greed, non-possessiveness, and invokes the frugal gene.

Since the rich are always complaining that being rich is harder than it looks, yoga might be a big help for them.

Yoga is like an old-time religion, even though it isn’t a religious practice. It is old-school. It’s got it’s hand on the gospel plow. But most of what is known as yoga today is largely about being led through a workout on a mat, with an emphasis on paying attention to your breath, and maybe a dollop of meditation to round things out. There’s no magic to it, but there is a healthy dose of hocus pocus involved.

For a long time, as yoga was booming in the modern world, the third limb of the practice was extolled for its timelessness. It was said the postures were thousands of years old. They had been burnished honed systematized to perfection. When Mark Singleton wrote “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice” several years ago the genie was out of the bottle. It turns out almost everything being done on yoga mats had been invented in the past one hundred years-or-so.

A hundred years ago what is today taught and practiced on yoga mats far and wide was something else. It was Danish calisthenics British Army exercises YMCA strength work and Indian wrestling. It was a little bit of everything.

The “Hatha Yoga Pradipika” – written about six hundred years ago – enumerates fifteen physical postures. That’s all of them. Fifteen. The legendary text “Yoga Korunta” that Krishnamacharya and K. Pattabhi Jois based the Ashtanga Series on remains to this day legendary. In other words, undiscovered, unhistorical, and unverifiable, largely because ants supposedly ate the text. It was written on banana leaves.

Practicing the series, which is hard in the doing and fulfilling in the accomplishment, may land you on cloud nine, but the origin of the series is pie in the sky.

One of the only yoga sutras mentioning anything about asana practice simply says one of the most important aspects of it is that it should entail “appropriate effort.” There isn’t anything in any traditional yogic text that says headstand or handstand or standing in tree pose for five minutes is what you need to do to get fit.

All you need to do is show some gumption.

“Yoga practice is supposed to make us structurally stable, enable us to move with grace and ease, free us from physical suffering and enable us to withstand changing circumstances,” wrote Olga Kabel in ‘Traditional Goals of Asana Practice’.

Yoga exercise is part of the package, not the whole package, as it has been    misconstrued while being repackaged as a fitness regimen, another get fit quick commodity in the long line from Nautilus to jazzercise to spinning. It isn’t even clear that yoga is best for stability, best for enabling us to move with grace and ease, and best for alleviating suffering.

It is beyond doubt best for helping us adapt and deal with change, but that isn’t because of the exercise, but because of the rest of it. Yoga is 90% mental and the other half is physical.

“Traditionally, the practice of asana was always considered as an integral part of a holistic practice, never as an isolated fitness system,” said Gary Kraftstow, founder of the American Viniyoga Institute.

When it becomes a fitness system is when it starts selling monthly memberships.

“Many gyms that offer yoga emphasize the physical exercise without teaching the essential self-awareness that differentiates yoga from any exercise,” said David Surrenda, founding dean of the Graduate School of Holistic Studies at John F. Kennedy University.

“The result of an emphasis on exercise misinterprets what the real intention of yoga practice is. Yes, one can increase muscle mass and decrease waist size, but that’s not the real goal. Much of the yoga practiced today has actually become the antithesis of yoga as it is meant to be.”

Yoga might be whatever you want it to be in its post-modern guise. Whatever it was meant to be way back when is neither here nor now. Maybe that’s the beauty of the practice, shape-shifting to suit our intentions. You’ve got to stay on your toes to stay in the present, be in the moment, which is an integral part of the practice.

Nevertheless, even though lunges and twists and jump backs on the mat are good for you, so are riding a bike and lifting weights. In fact, yoga doesn’t even crack Harvard Medical School’s Top 5, which are walking, swimming, strength training, Tai chi, and kegel. The best fitness exercises are still basic hip and hamstring stretches, push-ups, sit-ups, squats, dumbbell rows and presses, and burpees.

As part of an overall fitness regimen, yoga exercise is by all accounts a Top 10. Everyone does push-ups and sit-ups on the mat without even realizing it. The burpee is a foundation of all vinyasa sequences. When it comes to flexibility, yoga is certainly Number 1 on the Hit Parade. Sometimes people say they aren’t flexible enough to do yoga, but that’s like saying you’re too dirty to take a bath.

Getting all the poses on the mat right is keeping your eye on the wrong prize.

Anyone who subscribes to the eight aspects of the practice is doing yoga, but no one who just does stuff on the mat is doing yoga. They are doing something, but it’s like soda pop to a scotch straight up. They are fooling themselves when they believe the bright shining proposition that they are achieving some greater good by doing what they’re told to do on the mat. Anyone will get fit if they spend enough time at a yoga studio, but they will get fit if they spend enough time walking around in circles, too.

Yoga is about mastering the modifications of your mind, not just the modifications of your body. When exercise is the be-all and end-all, it is a good thing in and of itself, but it’s not yoga. When exercise is linked to the breath, the breath to the mind, the mind to the spirit, in a kind of virtuous circle, it’s yoga whether you’re in a studio or walking the dog in the park.

Like K. Pattabhi Jois said, “Just do.”

Hatha yoga is what leads to physical health mental clarity and a cool as a cucumber spirit. When practiced alongside the yamas amd niyamas, the ten principles of daily life, it’s the second to none way of transforming yourself from the outside in and the inside out. There’s no monkey business to it.

The fitness aspect of yoga doesn’t have to be the dogma of what has come to be standardized in how-to books youtube videos and studios. It can be cobra and down dog and corpse pose. It can be power lifting. It can be archery. As long as your mind and spirit are one-pointed and your aim is true, whatever we do with gumption and purpose will gird us for where we want to go.

All anyone needs to do is keep their hand on the gospel plow.

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