Sunday, December 27, 2009

Fermi Has An 'Issue'

Our cat, Fermi, is usually maintenance free but he had an 'issue' that needed to be taken care of this morning involving a gland in a rather unpleasant place. I had to take him into the kitty ER to have him taken care of so he'd be our happy little bundle of chaos again.

Jim and I put him in his carrier (okay that's a lie, we had to shove him like a French royal going to the guillotine), and I drove him off to the vet. Naturally, he associates being driven anywhere with all sorts of bad stuff, so he was mewling all the way. I did manage to keep him pretty calm though.

Once I got there, I was waiting with the cat in his carrier. There were four other people in the waiting room. One had a dog. Since I know Fermi doesn't like dogs (actually, he doesn't like cats or people who don't feed him either), I had his carrier positioned so he couldn't really see the dog and the dog and the people couldn't see him.

After about ten minutes of waiting room silence, a long low sound like a hungry stomach squealing slithers out of the cat carrier like a sonic serpent. It grows into a groan with an evil vibrato and finishes as a low growl. Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing and stared at me and the carrier. I smiled and said: "We're here for an exorcism." Everyone laughed and it generated a brief conversation. At the end of which, one of the men pointed at the carrier and said: "So what's in there?"

Congratulations Fermi! You sound like something really scary! Good news is that - at least on this vet trip - we were able to get Fermi out of the carrier for the vet to examine without any undue drama. During a prior visit, the combined efforts of Jim and the vet couldn't dislodge our little darling from inside the carrier. They had to unscrew the top to get him out!

Anyway, Fermi is all better now, although we have to give him oral antibiotics for a week or so (that's sure to be a treat!). I'm looking forward to once again falling asleep with our warm little purr engine lying across my legs very soon.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Joy Of Gift Cards

Ever have someone apologize for a present as they hand it to you? They're really saying: "I'm sorry. I care, but I have no idea what to buy you." In these situations, one must be kind. After all, it's the thought that counts. Still I feel bad for them and the awkwardness they clearly feel, so I have decided to address the issue of gift cards.

Like everyone else, I get some gift cards for Christmas. This year was a nice take: $100 for amazon, $15 for iTunes, and $10 for ice cream. However, some poor misguided souls feel guilty about giving gift cards. Others openly spout off about how gift cards are impersonal, and people should take the time to personally pick out gifts. I disagree 100%. Gift cards rock! To understand why, think about it from the receivers point of view.

First, there's the joy of opening a present and finding a gift card. It's the same feeling I get when (or, more accurately, if) someone handed me $100. Yippee!!! It says: "I love you; have a shopping spree." I love that sentiment, especially since I'm 'difficult to shop for' when it comes to books, music, and movies.

But then, the realization of the power of the gift card sets in. I often have a lot of the music, DVDs, or books I'm interested in. So, because gift cards aren't my money, they are a great way to buy something I normally might pass on. Things that I see and think: "Nice, but pricey" or "I sure would like to try this author/director/artist, but what if I hate it?" I can splurge and experiment with no risk! Then I can tell the gift-giver what I purchased and be really, honestly happy about it. Which makes them happy. Side note: this is an often skipped step with gift cards. It's essential to tell the person that you used the gift card, and what you bought with it. It gives them closure.

But back to the gift card experience. Next comes the 'kid in a candy store' euphoria. Should I get that 5-volume set of ancient Zen translations I've eyed every so often over the past five years? How about trying something by Rafael Sabatini? I'd love to listen to more French rap music. I've always wanted a hard cover version of my Arion edition of Moby Dick; then I could use my paperback version as a place to write notes for the rest of my life. Another Tony Jaa flick for my slowly growing martial arts DVD collection? The possibilities are endless, and I spend quite a bit of time exploring to make sure I get something really good with my gift card money. Talk about a gift that keeps on giving; it's usually a month before I finish with my gift card by actually making that purchase!

Beyond all that: aren't gift cards really the essence of why we give at Christmas? Sure we give presents to let people know we care but, equally important, is that we want to make them happy (or, in some annyoing cases, as happy as they can be). Yes, it's the thought that counts. However, if I think of a way to ensure someone is happy with my gift, then that's a better thought than loading them down with some half-assed guestimated purchase that's just going to end up in the white elephant bag next year. At the end of the day, manners and etiquette are about common sense, not tradition.

Of course, there's always the shocked and offended change-resistant ninnies to deal with. "So I suppose people should just not buy presents at all?" Insert harrumph. The response is: Of course I don't think that! If I know what someone will like, then naturally I'm going to buy it for them. Presents are still as fun as they ever were. But if I don't know what they'd like - and with the ever-expanding accessibility to everything via web shopping it's not hard to have friends and family members you have trouble shopping for - then I think of them and go for the gift card. When it comes to spreading Christmas cheer, I do a good job.

So give gift cards with your head held high! And if anyone raises their eyebrows or in any way seems offended, shove their nasty Scrooge face in the pumpkin pie. And tell them: "It's the thought that counts." When they lift their head up to look at you with that shocked, pie-smeared face (hopefully you shoved it in there really good), then you can laugh at them. After all, 'tis the season to be jolly!

Plus it'll make you feel better about that hideous pastel sweater they just gave you.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Seasons Greetings to All!

Good wishes from around the world!

video

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Little Treasures

I haven't written many Christmas poems in my life, but here's one I wrote over twenty years ago to someone who was very dear to me during a Christmas that was a difficult transition time for us both and neither of us had much to offer each other in the way of 'Christmas loot'. It may be a little too Hallmark for some people, but I still like it (even now that I'm addicted to giving and getting sweet Christmas loot)......

Not golden rings on silver lace
nor angel feathers shining bright
nor snowflake diamonds
glittering like crystals in the night
will bring elation to the face.

Little treasures
shining little lights
find their way to the heart.
Only the small precious sights
outlast the gold
spent to make them play their part.

Heart-shaped candle.
Tiny golden music box.
They conjure up
and never fade away.
Call them into play.

Riches and jewels pale;
little treasures never fail.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Yellow Belt with Green Stripe

Found out today I passed my rank test and now I have a yellow belt with a green stripe! A couple of the red belts became black belts, and both of them seem to now take a more active role in teaching us junior belts. I'm really happy about that because they are the red belts I liked being paired up with most. They push me, makes lots of constructive comments, and are really into martial arts. It's very energizing to practice with them. I think that's going to make each class even better.

I was pretty tense during this test, and there was really no reason for it. I probably even impacted my performance a bit. Not that I didn't do well, but I can't have as sharp an edge if I'm all doubting and second guessing myself. It's very unlike me to be that way, so I had to mentally bitch slap myself. In tonight's class, I made a conscious effort to stay relaxed and loose and I felt like I did a lot better overall and certainly I enjoyed myself much more.

Anyway, at the rank test, the yellow/greens testing for a full green belt did some actual contact sparring. Nothing like UFC or anything, just kick contact and stuff. That looks like a lot of fun, but I'm going to need to be loose and focused to do that well. If I'm all tensed up, I'll be slow and easy to throw off my game. Also I haven't yet been called out as 'excellent' at my two rank tests. I'd like to have that happen. So I'm just going to make sure I work hard and stay happy!

But for now, I'm proud of myself!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Turkey!

Me, Jim, and bunch of my friends belong to a gay bowling league that hits the lanes once a month. It's a good time, you can meet new people, and blow off a little steam while hanging with friends and knocking back a few.

I'm not what anyone would consider a good bowler but, now that I have my own ball, I've seen a definite improvement in my game. In fact yesterday I bowled over 120 in all three games of the night. That's the first time I've ever done that! I also had the joy of bowling a turkey for the first time (that's three strikes in a row for you non-bowlers).

Our team (the Barracudas) won 5 out of 7 points, which we badly needed to stay out of the cellar now that we've moved to the mid-level division. If this continues, maybe it's time to get team T-shirts?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas Party 2009

For the last seven years, Jim and I have hosted a Christmas bash at our house. There's a big spread, a real tree (I only had fake ones growing up), a grab bag exchange, and wonderfully spiked punch. One of these days, I've got to remember to get some mistletoe!

Anyway, we usualy get 20-25 people: straight and gay, married with kids and singles, old and young, adults and kids. Lots of different kinds of people, but everyone talks to everyone and it's very nice to have people we care about in our home like that. Here's a few pics from this years' bash. You can click them to see a bigger size.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The 'Real' Egypt (part 6 of 6)

Threads are bad enough. What about the knots?

Dr. Rifai took us to a dinner party at the house of a couple he knows. After dinner, everyone socialized. Though I’m not normally good at dinner party patter, I didn’t want to spend the night huddled with the other members of the tour group, most of whom were complaining about everything.

A student a little younger than I met my gaze and introduced himself. His name was Romani. He spoke perfect English. We spoke easily and, at length, he told me his ideas about the great future Egypt had in store for it. He mentioned the capital flight that plagued the country and added, “…it’s hard to attract foreign capital. You people in America think we don’t have electricity or that we all live like nomads.”

“I didn’t think that,” I was able to honestly say. “My uncle worked in Saudi Arabia for many years and my cousin told me things were modern.”

“That may be,” he replied not sounding very convinced, “but, in general, people in America have a lot of misconceptions about Egypt.”

Through some miracle I hit on a very good point, the kind you usually don’t think of until days after a conversation. “I’m sure your right,” I said, “but I think it’s natural to have misconceptions about a foreign country. I’m sure you have misconceptions about the United States.”

He waved his hand at me. “No, I know all about America.”

“Yeah, well tell me what you think about America.”

“In America, everything is very modern and people have everything they need…” he went on for a minute or two about the paradise of America. I felt an odd mixture of pride in the image of my country and amazement at how incomplete and generalized it was.

“You’re wrong,” I said.

“No, I’m not.”

“Do you know there are people in America who don’t have a home and sleep outside, even in the cities? And there are kids who don’t get enough food and who have to receive welfare from the government?”

If I’d sprouted a second head right in front of him, Romani couldn’t have looked more shocked. “Not in America!”

Another member of the tour group, who probably thought things were getting too animated, interrupted our conversation.

Later, our tour group walked back to the hotel and I thought about how odd it was Romani would have such a limited picture of America. What was even stranger was how strongly he held to that picture. Perhaps I really was right. Perhaps everyone has misconceptions about what foreign countries are like and, even worse, what the people who live there are like.

However, I also had to admit Romani was right to a certain extent. After all, when I’d told people back home I was planning to go to Egypt the first thing everyone said was: “Aren’t you worried about terrorists?” As if I were going to meet Yassir Arafat in Beirut! Nothing I said could sway those people from their belief that all of the Arab world was a series of car bombs and gun-toting extremists, and nothing I could say would convince Romani that America was not a perfect paradise for all who live there.

Being in Egypt is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. My fellow students and I were the minority, instantly identifiable as outsiders by our pale skin and foreign language. We were a small petrie dish of America floating through this other world and displaying all our strength and weaknesses in startling relief.

I saw my lack of knowledge of other cultures. At the same time, I knew I was from a land where one could go a thousand miles without passing into another country or being immersed in any language or culture other than my own. I saw my relative wealth, but I also saw how I was defined by it. I was labeled with as tight a stereotype as any the students I traveled with cast upon the Egyptians. I saw things about myself which I have since tried to change, things I never would have seen without the lens of Egypt.

* * *

Just over ten years later. October 2001.

“Bomb all the sand niggers!” “Islam teaches violence and hatred.” “Those crazy Arabs are animals!”

And on and on. And from people I know have never been to Egypt or any land in the Mid East. They condemn two dozen or so countries and hundreds of millions of people with the carelessness I’d use to crumple a piece of paper.

I can honestly say I hate the people who perpetrated 9-11. I would have no moral problem shooting one of them dead. I can’t feel anything, one way or the other, about those people who celebrated the fall of the twin towers. They are reacting from a place I do not understand.

But I love Egypt and I respect the people I met and saw there. I sometimes wonder how they are and what their lives are like. I hate hearing them denigrated. I can’t explain this to anyone because a month in Egypt doesn’t make me an expert on the country or its people. I do speak up and sometimes people admit they’re being stupid. Many times they don’t. Most of the time, I don’t think they care one way or the other.

But mostly I just wonder about the dark waters that cannot be seen into.


The End

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The 'Real' Egypt (part 5 of 6)

As with all tours, the days in Egypt passed at a grueling grind. A week went by without unpacking. We walked in the hot sun over ruins, slept in the bus, waited each morning for Moumoud who was never on time (nothing in Egypt is on time), haggled with street vendors, and were constantly on the go. I was alternately excited beyond belief and bored to tedium. So many of my notes from the trip are scrawled words, hastily written scraps in between events attempting to preserve the swirl of input.

One day we stopped at a store where they sold carpets. They were all hand made and had the unique look of the Mid East woven into their multi-colored, silken designs. In the showroom, there were several looms set up and children of about seven or eight years of age wove the carpets with nimble-fingered dexterity. The guide tells us tiny fingers are required for the detailed work.

“Great,” Ruth commented in a low voice, “shouldn’t these kids be in school?”

“They are very poor,” Dr. Rifai said. “They work half the day and go to school in the afternoon. They use the money they earn here to help support their families.”

I wondered if this were true or if Dr. Rifai’s national pride sought to sugarcoat the less splendid aspects of his homeland. At the same time, I felt I was somewhat naive. Outside this store people tended goats and lived in dirty houses that looked like a good wind could knock them down. These children were healthy-looking and were earning money in a clean, cool environment. Egypt was not America. Why did I constantly impose my own sense of right and wrong on everything? Is child labor so wrong when the alternative is poverty and ignorance due to lack of money? Didn’t I myself have a paper route at this age? Maybe Ruth and I had read too many Dickens novels.

It’s like one man said as we cruised down the Nile in a boat belching out thick, black smoke. “You want us to use something else to power our boats? What would you have us use? We do not have the technology you do in America. You Americans want us to protect the environment but how are we to build our country if we cannot do anything? You don’t think of these things.”

Egypt has rules that make sense based on the realities within its borders. Not only the realities of life forge this national fabric, but also the history, religion, culture, and a million other details. They come together just like the thousand silk threads these children weave into a tapestry. Within the final design, the individual threads are so enmeshed as to be undetectable by the passing shopper.

So many threads.

Threads of national pride. A woman at an economic summit listening to the Governor of her province speak about the business climate. I see pride and determination etched into her face. Some Americans talk about how our country has oppressed people. I can tell this women would spit in my face if I suggested to her she were oppressed by anyone. And what hubris to assign everyone not as economically well off as we to the class of “the oppressed.”

Threads of history. One student at the summit was called on to make a statement about Egypt and, not knowing what to say, stated how Egypt had once been the leader of the world in art, engineering, science…everything. And it could be that way again. The last part was quite idealistic, but the audience responded with cheering from a fiercely proud people.

Threads of religion. There was a man with one leg and no arms hopping in the median of a street and begging for alms to be placed in a tin cup around his neck. “Look!” Alf snickered, “an Egyptian kangaroo!” I’d given up being disgusted by this point but Ruth shot a pointed rebuke at Alf. “He’s a person,” she finished. “Show some compassion! He could be homeless!” Dr. Rifai interposed: “All good Muslims give a certain percentage of their income to charity. I wouldn’t be surprised if that man lives in a very nice house.”

Threads of culture. Young men hold hands in Egypt all over the place. It’s just the way it is. Such an open attitude to towards male comradeship is impossible in America. Then again, we don’t enslave our women in shrouds and stone homosexuals (at least not openly).

And the largest thread of all, the Nile herself. We took a falooka ride on it. Sailing in a zigzag pattern over the serene waters at twilight is one of the most peaceful memories I possess. The wind blew softly over us and the water whooshed against the edge of the falooka. The quiet peace of the river makes clear the many instances of Egyptian lateness. It’s easy to see how time would be of no object in a land with a river like this at its core.

And, what about the threads I can’t see? How much wisdom flashes before my blind eyes like hieroglyphs on the surface of a river?


End Part 5...I'll be posting a part a day for the next week.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The 'Real' Egypt (part 4 of 6)

“Don’t tip them!” Moumoud shouts at us as men approach leading the camels we’ll ride to the Pyramids.

“Camel ride!” the men shout. “Baksheesh!” Baksheesh is tips or alms. The men obviously want them.

I’m lost in foreign culture and ways. Is Moumoud being a jerk? Are these people poor? Their clothes are a bit dirty but perhaps that’s the natural way a robe and turban look when you work amid the sand all day. I want to tip them, but is a dollar too much? Is it offensively low? Will they think I pity them? I don’t want them to think that. Or are they hoping I’m a foolish American tourist who drops cash into every hand thrust out at me?

I slip away from the unknowable at the sight of the camels. Have you ever seen a movie in which camels walk before a sunset? It looks so graceful and serene, but that’s all Hollywood. These lumbering beasts are as capable of such fluid movements as they would be of breaking into an arabesque. The men pull at the ropes, almost dragging the stubborn animals behind them. It seems it would be easier for me to sit on the ground, have them tie the rope to my legs, and drag me.

The men race to us, yanking their camels after them. A man stops before me. “Come!” he invites and demands. I step forward, Alf behind me. We have to ride two per camel. I stare up at the ten-foot high animal. “How do I get on?” I ask with a laugh.

The man pulls at the rope and fires a volley of rough sounding Arabic at his camel which responds with a curled lip and a jerk of it’s head. The man yanks again. The camel emits a loud hacking sound, like the noise Linda Blair made when she barfed on her exorcist, and refuses to budge. Infuriated, the man somehow makes the same horrid sound back at the camel. The beast drops to its front two knees then drops the back two to rest on the ground. A ridiculous red and gold padded saddle that looks like a harem pillow presents itself to me.

I get on, and Alf follows suit. “Damn this thing smells!” he growls. Only then do I realize the scent should bother me. I just don’t care to let it. The camel rises up and I grab onto the saddle so as not to fall off. The man drags the camel, which seems bent on going in any direction except toward the Pyramids, after him. The whole thing seems mightily inefficient and could easily be an “I Love Lucy” skit, but I dismiss this thought. I’m riding a camel! How Egyptian!

At that moment I see an image that wipes out everything else in my mind. The Pyramids are before us and from behind one a silvery car emerges and drives away. The juxtaposition of those structures from thousands of years ago and the 20th century technology knocks me for a loop. This country has been around forever. Pyramids, cars, America. It’s all a blink in the eye to the history of Egypt.

I wonder about the man tugging the camel. What would he think of my idea that riding a camel is Egyptian? Is it a stereotype? Why does he drag me on this camel when cars are available? Is it pride in the history of his country? Is it a quick buck? It is demeaning? Is any of this Egyptian? What is it to be Egyptian?

The camel ride is over and we stand before the Pyramids. They’re as big and silent as Time. Yet the pyramids are an illusion of Egypt. In movies they are grand and imposing, and I started this paragraph with an impressive statement about their presence. It’s very true but, at the same time, unless you’re at some photogenic vantage point, the Pyramids are rather underwhelming in a certain sense. They are tall, but in the desert there are no trees or buildings to give real scale to them. Their magnificence is muted. When you look up the face of the Pyramid from its base, it’s a series of large rocks shrinking into the distance and the top of the Pyramid represents a rounded arc rather than a point.

Worst of all, it’s impossible to get a picture of them “up close.” They’re too big. You can choose to see a lot of detail of the dozen blocks right in front of you or you can stand far away and see the whole structure while the individual stones fade into one another.

I reach out and touch the stones as if they have magical properties. How many hands over the past several thousand years have rested in that exact spot? A worker pushing the stone as part of his duty to his king and god? A conquering Roman soldier? A shifty tomb raider of unknown origin? An explorer from Napoleon’s France? Who knows?

At that moment, I’m treated to one of the students on the tour asking our Egyptian guide what she thinks about theories that aliens built the Pyramids because the ancient Egyptians couldn’t have done it alone. I wanted to slide under the Pyramids in embarrassment.

“You see over there?” the guide said, clearly irritated, and pointed to what looked like a series of rocky hills not far from us.

“Yeah,” was the dull reply.

“Those are quarries. The rock was craved out and placed here. Ancient Egypt was an agrarian society and the land was flooded for several months every year. A huge portion of the population was out of work and their king was their god.” She turned away and answered other questions, apparently mastering her outrage.

I looked at the quarries and wondered what I would think of an Egyptian standing before the Declaration of Independence and asking if aliens had written it for us. My faux pax at the mosque was a simple mistake, but the question about aliens was different. And it wasn’t the first or the last incident of this type I’d witness. Why did my fellow Americans have to say such stupid things?


End Part 4...I'll be posting a part a day for the next week.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The 'Real' Egypt (part 3 of 6)

“Boom Boom! Bambali booloo booloo! Boom Boom! Bambali naga naga!”

Those aren’t Arabic words (I don’t think) but a phonetic description of the chorus to a song our bus driver, Sofwat, is singing along to on the radio. We’re going to drive around Cairo and then off to the Pyramids. Sofwat snaps both sets of fingers over his head at once and somehow manages to shift lanes on a major thoroughfare of Cairo. I laugh at his devil may care attitude; he makes Chicago cabbies seem like old lady drivers. In fact all traffic in Egypt makes America look tame. There are four lanes painted on the road, but there are at least six lanes of traffic. Buses, dump trucks, cars, donkey carts, lots of bicycles, and even a few scooters vie to shift lanes to reach their destinations. Directionals are optional.

Sofwat toots his horn and swerves into the next lane. “Where the hell do these people learn to drive?” mutters a student named Alf. His name’s not really Alf. Everyone on the tour calls him that because he sort of looks like the sitcom alien. I look back out the window, slightly bothered by his negativity. Although we’ve traveled a good distance, I haven’t seen a single accident or near accident. Despite the lack of order, everything moves and nobody crashes. For a moment, I wonder if it’s the rules that create the accidents back home. Or maybe, I’m so used to the rules that I never even thought traffic could be handled in a different way.

We get out, walk around, shop at Khan Khallili, and tour a papyrus art dealer’s establishment. All fantastic stuff, but the thing I remember most about this day is something rather unremarkable on the surface. Dr. Rifai announces his intention to pray at a nearby mosque and asks if anyone wants to go. Most of the students are tired and hungry and decline. I vote to go with Dr. Rifai, as I’m impatient to see “the real Egypt.” Another student named Jean also decides to go.

I’m disappointed that we end up only a block from the tour bus, but the smell of Cairo - a pungent mix of horses, sand, and garbage - is stronger here. Jean isn’t allowed into the mosque because she’s a woman and we don’t want to leave her alone, so I stay outside with her. We’re both disappointed, but sitting outside doesn’t turn out to be so bad. We enjoy taking a load off without being on the bus. We people watch. We get some odd stares; people probably wonder why two white people, obviously tourists, are sitting here.

Suddenly an old man wrapped in a ragged set of white and brown cloth storms up to us. He’s not fierce looking, other than the massive dirty turban wound over his head, but he’s clearly upset about something. He starts chewing us out in Arabic.

“I’m sorry,” I say with a wide-eyed look and a shrug, “I don’t understand.”

The man rolls his eyes and look about ready to burst a blood vessel. He rags on us even more loudly. He points to the sky. I look up but there’s nothing over us. I shake my head in confusion.

“I’m sorry I don’t understand what you mean.”

“I’d better get Dr. Rifai,” Jean says.

“You can’t go in there, and I don’t think we should split up.”

She agrees but the man is getting angrier than ever, jabbing his index finger up at the sky like he’s trying to poke a hole in the air. Some people stop to watch.

Thankfully, Dr. Rifai emerges from the mosque at that moment and rushes up to us. He has a few words with the old man. Jean and I do not exist anymore. Within a few moments, both are smiling but the old man glares at us before he grabs his rickety bike, points at the sky yet again, and wheels away like Elvira Gulch in a turban.

“What was that all about?” I ask in amazement.

Dr. Rifai waves his hand in disgust. “He’s devout and he didn’t like that you were sitting in front of a mosque with an unmarried woman.” Jean and I looked at one another and burst out laughing. The idea of being in a foreign country was suddenly concrete. I had given offense without having the slightest idea why. Sure, this man was the Islamic version of some nutty Christian sect like Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it was clear I lacked the ability to know whether what I said or did was rude or not. The common sense rules were different – and unknown.


End Part 3...I'll be posting a part a day for the next week.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The 'Real' Egypt (part 2 of 6)

This day has not started well. I got up to be ready for the tour bus at 9AM. Breakfast was continental, and I was worried about how soon I’d be hungry. By the time I went to the westernized lobby to sit with the other students who were part of the group, Moumoud and the tour bus were an hour late.

After another hour, I went upstairs with Dr. Rifai, our teacher and the leader of the group. He was Egyptian. Two other students, Ruth and Angie, joined us. When the elevator opened, instead of seeing another standard lobby like the one below, there was a less brightly lit, more intimate room. The carpet and furniture were the dark red and gold you immediately associate with the Mid East. The tables were lower and the overall feel of the room more voluptuous and exotic. This was what I afterwards called “the real lobby.”

We walked in. Waiters in white passed by with carafes of tea. The scent of perfumed smoke came from the right. I’m sure I was gaping – and looking very foolish – when I spotted a golden hookah sitting on a low table. Three or four Egyptian businesspeople in western dress were seated around the table holding green velvet tubes from which they drew smoke.

I drew closer but, as they spoke in Arabic, I didn’t understand anything they said. I nudged Dr. Rifai, whom we all called “Papa,” and asked about the smoking device.

“Would you like to try it?” he asked.

“Y-yes?” I replied, unsure whether I did or not. However, I had a powerful fear of missing any opportunity to experience “the real Egypt” as opposed to the bland Egypt of the main floor lobby. After all, this was not Indiana. I couldn’t come back next month to do “all the things I should’ve done.”

I sat and nodded a greeting to the Egyptians as Dr. Rifai said something to them in Arabic. They smiled in return. Dr. Rifai handed me one of the tubes, I inhaled and…

“GACK! HACK! ACK! What is this? HACK! URK!”

The Egyptians laughed, not in a mean way, but gently as if they had expected this reaction.

“What was it like?” Ruth asked, wide-eyed, after I emerged from the table area with tearing eyes.

“Like a combination of car exhaust, old sweaty socks, and perfume,” I managed to choke out. My first taste of “the real Egypt” had left me gasping for air.

One hour later, Moumoud and the tour bus finally arrived.


End Part 2...I'll be posting a part a day for the next week.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The 'Real' Egypt (part 1 of 6)

Take a look at the prior post for an introduction to this piece.

I leaned against the metal railing of the balcony as the muted call to prayer drifted over the yellow-brown buildings of Cairo. Structural steel is not common in Egypt, so few buildings rise more than a dozen stories high. The city spread out not up stretching like a carpet to a horizon hidden by smog. The call to prayer wafted softly through the air, like the voice of the setting sun. Only now, after a plane ride that seemed to take days, did it hit me. I was in Egypt! Tomorrow, we would be walking in the dusty streets twelve stories below, shopping in Khan Khallili, and visiting the Pyramids.

I walked back inside the standard-looking hotel room, which smacked of Peoria more than Egypt, and sipped bottled water. I flipped on the television, but the programming was almost all in Arabic. All the people had black hair and dark skin. I picked up a newspaper. In some languages you can get by since words often look like their English counterparts. Not in Arabic. Its beautiful loops and sloping hooks are almost like the script a wizard might use to catalogue arcane wisdom. I had committed Arabic numbers to memory before we’d left, so I scanned through the paper to pick out something, perhaps a date, but nothing made sense. It wouldn’t be until two weeks later that I learned Arabic is written right to left, not left to right.

I tossed the newspaper and its opaque language aside. I went back on the balcony and watched a river of people pass by in the streets below. Rectilinear buildings rose beside the sensually curved domes of mosques. The mosques had intricate designs carved into them, making them ornate pieces of artwork. Ladies in Western business attire strode past women covered from head to toe in heavy black cloth. Young men on motorcycles roared past other young people driving rickety, horse drawn carts. The call to prayer touched my ear peacefully as I saw heavily armed men in army fatigues pace like panthers. Ethnically, Egypt was homogenous but there seemed to be a diversity of another sort before me.

As the sunset turned into a pink and yellow wash of watercolors, the buildings and smog became a dull, hazy blue. My mind drifted and I was daydreaming. I recalled a trip I took to Arkansas when I was in grade school. My parents had rented a boat and we’d gone fishing on a big lake with hills all around. I’d been baiting my hook when my dad shouted: “Look over there!”

I turned just in time to see the broad back of a greenish-silver fish disappear into the dark water. I’d only caught a glimpse, but the size of the fish made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. For a moment I was stunned and understood why people might believe there were dinosaurs in Loch Ness. Then, while the rest of my family ran on about “the size of that thing,” I looked over the side of the boat and into the dark water.

I couldn’t see more than a foot down. What had just been a familiar lake was suddenly very alien and mysterious. How deep was the water here? It must be deep to hold a fish like the one we’d just seen. If the boat sank, how long would it take me to sink to the bottom? What else was in there? I wasn’t scared; I knew there was no danger. But I was unsettled. The lake had asserted itself.

I realized I knew nothing about this lake though I’d fished here a week. Then it occurred to me that, in fact, I could fish here a lifetime and never know any more than I did now. All I could see was the deadwood branches floating in the shallows, the lapping waves on the surface, and the dark murk even the noon sun could not penetrate. I had no way of learning more without some drastic intervention, such as suddenly being able to scuba dive.

The cool winds of the Egyptian night made me shiver from cold at the same time I shivered in my memory. I went back into my room. I didn’t bother to unpack since we would be leaving for Ismalia, a province along the Suez Canal, in a day or so. I just dropped onto the bed and drifted to sleep. I was twenty-three and expected something incredible to happen tomorrow.

End Part 1...I'll be posting a portion a day for the next week.

The 'Real' Egypt

During college, I signed up for a month long internship in Egypt over Christmas break. Half of the month took the form of touring the Suez Canal Authority and learning about how it operated. The other half was straight up tourism in one of the oldest and most fascinating countries on Earth. That's me in the picture riding a camel to the Great Pyramids of Giza.

If I ever had doubts that 'travel broadens the mind', this trip wiped them away. I learned an awful lot about myself and broadened my perspective beyond the borders of the United States. I think it really gave me a more balanced perspective on world events.

Anyway, years later, Jim and I went back to school to get our Masters of Liberal Studies at North Central College. One quarter, when Jim and I took different classes, I took a course called 'Creative Writing and Public Discourse'. This course was about transforming the creative process from one of introspection to one of looking at the world around us and addressing relevant issues using creativity. It was post 9-11 and, for one of the assignments, I wrote a piece of narrative fiction about my trip to Egypt and how that experience informed my reaction to the 9-11 aftermath. The piece ended up being strong enough to be published in North Central College's literary magazine and I'm very proud of it.

Narrative fiction is a genre in which the writer takes actual experiences in their life and tailors them a bit to create a story that dramatically illustrates an specific issue or theme. Writing this piece allowed me to dive back into my memories of Egypt and crystallize why my reactions to 9-11 - while full of rage and grief - were more measured than those of many people around me who seemed to quickly transform from sensible people into racist war mongers (e.g., 'bomb all those fucking Arabs' and 'Islam is a religion of hate'). I think this response was impossible for me after having been to an Arab country and seeing the wide range of people who live there.

I reread the piece recently, and I really would like to place it in another forum where others might be able to access it. I believe almost all of the experiences I relate in this piece actually happened. The 'fiction' part of the 'narrative fiction' is mainly the ordering of the events and my reactions to them, which are a mixture of what I felt at the time and what I realized years later in digging into those memories. So here it goes! I hope someone reads and enjoys.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Who Are The Biggest Douchebags?

Okay, I realize making fun of these people is like shooting fish in a barrel, and I shouldn't take potshots at such helpless prey. But I'm me, so why not? Leave a comment to vote for which group of people you think are the biggest douchebags. Is it:

A) Dorks who chase tornadoes in a car that looks like a geek's wet dream blend of a Road Warrior ride and the Batmobile?


B) Pansies who use high tech equipment to scare themselves stupid(er) in dark houses?


C) Goddamn hippies 'saving whales' with hilariously inept acts of unintentional slapstick?

Monday, November 30, 2009

I am not a slug anymore!

After several weeks of crazy hours at work and not doing anything physical, I am back on track! I've been lifting again, and tonight I went back to hapkido for the first time in weeks. Hooray!

Inertia is such a killer. I was dreading going to back to class, not because I thought it was going to be hard or anything, but because it required I make an effort. It was just easier to sit around the house and watch TV and veg. But as soon as I was back in class and doing kicks and throws, I was all happy again.

It's amazing to me how easy it is to slip out of something that's positive in my life and get stuck in a rut that would never make me happy. I literally had to force myself to leave work on time so that I would be able to get home and eat something before heading out for class. And it's not like I thrive on long work days! I was slipping into a comfortable habit of working a long time and coming home and vegging. I used the long hours to justify me not doing things. I can see how people allow the work-life balance to get out of whack; I really had to make a determined effort not to stay late and instead get back to the dojo.

Very glad I did. And now my goal is to work no more than 40 hours this week...and every week for the rest of this year. The 50-60 hour work week is a waste of life. I learned that long ago, but I wasn't acting like it these past few weeks. I'm done with that, and I'm reclaiming my life!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Navy Seal Ab Workout

I don't know if this is really a workout used by the Navy Seals or not, but it is intense ab punishment. I've adjusted it some and added to my routine. It's quick but brutal. As I get better, I just increase the reps. So it's always going to be pretty punishing. Only caution is I've found I really have to pay attention to form, because these exercises can easily lead to lower back strain - in particular the ones with your feet off the ground. I stretch my back in between every two or three exercises just to make sure I'm not pushing my lower back too hard.

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8khz1_the-navy-seals-the-toughest-ab-buil_people

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Stopgap Melville Entry

I am still reading Melville!

As all three people who actually follow my blog know by now, I've been working my way through Herman Melville's books in the order in which he wrote them. It's my latest self-assigned reading challenge. I'm on number six: Moby Dick.

I've actually already read this book twice, but I was hoping it would take on even deeper meaning in the context of this other works. I think it has. I've gotten a better 'feel' for Melville as a writer going through all his stuff. Moby Dick is just as challenging and frustrating as I remember it. There are some passages that are just brilliant and (as writer) make my skin crawl with envious pleasure, and others that are so grueling that I just want to put a fork in my eye.

Each time I read the book, I find more depth to it. There is just so much going on thematically. At the same time, I'm not fully convinced Melville was completely in control of his subject matter. I'm about two-thirds done, so hopefully I can post a proper set of thoughts once I finish.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A Vegetarian Thanksgiving?

My parents are retired in another, and warmer, state, so I'm pretty much on my own for the holidays. I go to Jim's family for some stuff, but Thanksgiving is when I go to my friend Delane's house. She has a dinner every year, and it's a good time to see some great people and have a nice evening.

This year is the first Thanksgiving after Delane has embraced being vegetarian full-time, and she was not going to do turkey. I have to admit I was a thinking: "Oh jeez! I'm going to be starving my way through this one!" However, that's not actually what happened.

There was no turkey and the gravy was made without animal stuff (not sure how gravy is actually made!). While I love turkey, I really didn't miss it that much. There was a good stuffing (I guess you call it dressing if it wasn't stuffed in the bird), and the flavor and texture of that has always seemed like meat to me. Of course, there were the usual dishes: cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, beans, sweet potatoes, etc. Just no turkey.

Well, I was not hungry at the end of the meal, and we had a wonderful time. I also didn't get that bloated, sleepy feeling I usually get after gorging myself on turkey. Can't say I missed that. Of course, there's no way I'm going vegetarian - I'm a carnivore, and I love my dead animals! - but I'm glad I experienced how vegetarians do this.

On another note, seeing Delane struggle to order food at restaurants is eye-opening. I mean, are we really that divorced from non-meat and/or unhealthy food that a vegetarian person - or someone who maybe doesn't want meat that day - can't eat at a restaurant without being exiled to the salad menu? That's kind of weird, isn't it?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Wardruna and the Power of the Subgenre

This past Halloween, I was scouring amazon and iTunes listening to what was going on in black metal. I've always been fascinated by really dark metal music. When I was a kid, I loved Black Sabbath. As a teenager, I was introduced to Celtic Frost's classic album To Megatherion. Maybe the fascination was that I grew up in a very religious, upper middle class town, and I loved anything that spit in the face of that? Who knows. Since then, I've strayed into all sorts of different genres and have accumulated a lot of disparate musical tastes.

More recently, when Celtic Frost reunited for their dark comeback album Monotheist, I found myself oddly interested in checking out this genre again. I like the extreme nature of the music, but I dislike the stereotypical output most bands represent: faux Satanism, growly singing that sounds like Cookie Monster, etc. I like atmospherics, expression, and real darkness bleeding from a down tuned guitar. I also like when bands in this genre do things that break the mold without watering down the power of the music.

Along these lines, I quickly found another great unique piece of black metal: Ahab's The Call of the Wretched Sea. It's an album of doom or funeral metal (I don't pretend to understand the difference between all these subgenres; they all get stored under 'black metal' on my ipod). The cool thing about this album is that it is inspired by Moby Dick, and the lyrics are culled from Melville's prose in that novel. Pretty cool, especially since I'm (still) working my way through this Melville opus. There's definitely a doom and gloom atmosphere to some of Moby Dick that really fits with doom/black metal music.

I came across bands like Mayhem and Gorgoroth, whose members seem to be pretty overt Satanists (or something). Church burners, murderers, and all sorts of crazy stuff. I have no idea why this all fascinates me, by the way, but it does. LOL! As I was listening to samples in itunes and fending off Jim's 'what they hell are you listening to this crap for?' comments, I came across an absolutely phenomenal band: Wardruna.

The band is led by Kvitrafn, a former drummer for Gorgoroth. He quit the band a bunch of years ago to focus on Wardruna. A Norwegian, Kvitrafn is interested in ancient runes that formed the basis of Norwegian religions from the past. He decided to make musical interpretations of each of the key runes, and he used primitive instrumentation to do this: self-made frame drums, goat horns, the tagelharpe (or Viking fiddle), etc. There are also naturals sounds, like water, fire, rain, and wind, as well as vocal chants.

The first Wardruna album (of a proposed trilogy) is Runaljod - Gap Var Ginnunga. The music on the album is like nothing I have ever heard. It has a bit of the darkness you'd find in black metal, but it is merged with folk music and even a bit of new age in order to form something completely unique! It's a very personal vision, and that makes the album one of a kind. I love it!

I think this is why I have enjoyed fishing around in various subgenres at different times: gangsta rap, techno, black metal, trip hop, etc. You can always find artists there who are really in love with their music and who are totally committed to it in such a deep way that their passion makes their music transcend the genre they inhabit (or even leave the genre in the case of Wardruna). I love having my ear twisted in this way!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Photo Collage Fun

Indian summer came and went this past weekend. It was 70, and we had the windows open all weekend. Very nice! It was also the first weekend in several weeks where I did not bring any (well, not very much) work home.

At one point, I came across this frame (I guess about 20" x 30" or so) Jim had given me for Christmas years ago. I started going through old photos with some music on, and just started creating a collage from the photos. Places we've been, pics of me and friends, Jim, the kitty, etc. I was able to make a large collage of photos from all different times. It was a lot of fun! And very relaxing.

Got several compliments on it already at work. It encapsulates so many neat people and experiences in my life, and Jim was glad to see me finally use the frame. Though I also think he would have liked to see the collage stay at home!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Myth Continues...

the 10th and final poem from The Ancient Elm












...samadhi







The final poem is a bit of a 'gimmick', I suppose, but one thing I wanted to communicate in The Ancient Elm is the idea that there isn't a endpoint as is usually the case in 'journey' type works. There is a saying by a Chinese Zen Master that goes something like: "Everything gained in battle is ruined by celebrating." This saying was used in the introduction to Thomas Cleary's translation of Denkoroku to illustrate that achieving satori is not the end goal of Zen, but the beginning.

Too many people, I think, seek satori rather than let it come from within and they end up embracing illusion rather than truth. It's like they are addicted to a drug. Satori is so exciting, that they mistake achieving it for actual enlightenment. I know that I briefly fell into this trap but, thankfully, continued meditation snapped me out of it. So this poem in projecting to the future (how the myth continues), mentions samadhi/meditation. The story never really ends.

Personally, I think the ultimate goal of Zen (if it's even correct to say something like that!) is to live normal life with the same mindset that you have during zazen/meditation: to always be calm and centered and disassociated from illusions, to be in control of yourself and open to life at all times without being swept up in it. I'm a long way from achieving that! But what I've gained from Zen already has made the study of it worth the time. I hope to continue with it.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween 2009

This year's Halloween saw me dressed as a bad ass biker (whose sidecar rider was decapitated in a bad accident. Look close and maybe you can see the head in the helmet). My team at work all did biker costumes and hopefully I can get a copy of the group shot to post on here. Jim and I have decorated our entire lawn and the trees leading up to the door. Spooky music, figures with glowing eyes, four pumpkins, a hanging ghoul, tombstones...the works!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Okay, this one's pretty intense...

The tone of the poetry I've been writing this Autumn has been very dark. Here's an untitled poem I just finished. It's inspired by someone who was very close to me and a really bad situation they got themselves into and refused to rectify. If you know me, you know who it is. It's the saddest thing when you realize someone you care about is beyond help.


Because you've suffered,
you absolve your hate and
fondle its jagged edges
with lusty wounded fingers
time has given up healing

Again you cut yourself
explode and shatter it--
only to be outraged
by a thousand new shards
you can cut yourself upon

I reach out
as you entomb yourself,
but you swear you are right
white-knuckled fists
oozing black blood

You are a paramecium
screaming self-inflicted stigmata,
anger-blackened eyes blind
to your inverted crucifixion
convulsing
burning
damned

Friday, October 9, 2009

Obama Wins The Nobel Peace Prize

Wow! I'm stunned. Surprised. Elated. Although like a lot of people - including Obama himself - my first reaction was to think: 'What has Obama accomplished to win this prize?'

As I thought about it, I came to realize that the change of direction his vision for the US and its role in the world represents is hard to overstate. The fact that he has a vision - and has actively put it into practice across the world - from the way the US deals with our allies to a host of very difficult issues on an incredibly dangerous world stage has the potential to reverse the direction of the world's drift.

Think about it. When Bush made his 'Axis of Evil' speech, he set off a domino effect of tragic consequences. First, an erroneous and bungled (in terms of the leadership, not the soldiers) invasion of Iraq, which made it impossible for the US to finish the correct and justified invasion of Afghanistan. Remember Osama bin Laden? The guy who masterminded 9-11? We NEVER caught him! Part of the reason for that failure is that we got distracted by the mistake of Iraq.

After that, the other members of the Axis of Evil (North Korea and Iran, the latter now surrounded on two borders with hostile US troops), re-engaged overt nuclear programs. With our military forces stretched too thin, the US could do nothing. Worse, the Bush administration had destroyed US leadership and credibility around the world, including among our allies. Not that we were acting like a leader. The primary efforts to control North Korea had to be taken up by China and talks with Iran had to led by France. With the US modeling a 'my way or the highway' stance and shattering a formerly solid and powerful coalition of allies, hot spots sprung up all over the world: the horror of Darfur, open warfare between Israelis and Palestinians, feisty military moves by Russia, and more. Not to mention the US repeatedly threw its ideals under the bus by engaging - and then trying to justify - torture and also imprisoning people for years without cause and without access to legal counsel. Not very inspiring.

Obama's vision and what he has done to put it into practice are incredibly important. He's the President of the United States, a man with unparalleled influence on the direction of the world. For him to stress diplomacy, unity, alliance, and working towards peace (while not being blinded by the harsh realities of the world) is a huge change in the direction things have been going for a very long time. Want proof? Since Obama's election, leaders from around the world, both allies, former allies, and even those critical of the US, have been quoted saying they notice and welcome the change. The potential for solutions, rather than further conflict, has been laid.

But is that enough to win the Nobel Peace prize? Shouldn't Obama have 'accomplished something' to win this? I would answer by arguing that the Nobel Prize is not an achievement award. Kin Dae Jung won in 2000, partially for his work in building relations between North and South Korea. Well those two countries are not exactly the best of pals so what did he accomplish? The 1998 winners were named for working to end conflict in Northern Ireland. Well, the place isn't completely settled so what did they accomplish? Nelson Mandela won the award before apartheid was ended and after spending years in a jail cell. What did he accomplish?

All these recipients have one thing in common, a vision for peace that was actively put into practice. Some of the issues they tackled do remain unsolved, but they received the Prize as recognition of their vision and what they had done up to that point to put it into action. I think it is fair to say that Obama has vision for world diplomacy that he has clearly articulated and has put into practice all around the world. For a US President to do something like has obvious potential for the way the world moves forward, and the world takes notice.

In the end, it can be nothing but a benefit to the US for our President to be recognized in this very visible and affirming manner. It'd a sad comment on our country if we can't unite - regardless of what we think of Obama - and feel pride that such an esteemed award has been given to our acting President. How can you be American and not take pride in that? Go Obama!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

New Moon

poem 9 from The Ancient Elm

Past midnight,
crownless and craftless,
away from the Court of the Sun,
I stare into
the black sky…

I can’t sleep,
for the secrets I seek
only speak
in the silence
of aloneness…

It is my voice:
“Return, invincible Wizard-Knight,
you who know power
is like the father moon,
potent even in moonless skies.”

So I create…Nothing
and go outside
to find it is inside:
that ancient power
understood
before language named its secrets,
before cuneiform,
before music,
before cave painting,
before the dawn of ritual,
before any way
to experience it
but to run outside,
bellow in the wilds
flooding sky and canyon
with echoes
until
gasping
dizzy
spent
I am
once again
shining
myself.


The speaker found himself in a position that was similar (obviously dramatized) to where I found myself before going on the Pete Retreat and getting into Zen. Now I wanted to show how I feel I broke out of it. It was really the same solution as to how the speaker broke out of illusion, because regardless of whether you are powerful or powerless, striving to achieve something or having achieved things, illusion is what ends up pulling you away from truth. It takes different forms, but it's the same thing no matter what form it takes. You have to throw it all away and get out of it ('crownless, craftless, away from the Court of the Sun') in order to think and reflect. I often wonder how many relationships end because people are unable to do this, and they have to throw it out EVERYTHING in their life in order to think. Of course, I guess getting two people lost in illusion to 'get outside' and then come back together would take massive coordination!

The speaker finds that when he allows himself the silence necessary to hear himself think in honest terms that his voice is still there. He knows what he has to do; he just has to listen to himself and let himself know it. This is kind of what I meant in my rant about cell phones in another post. I feel people often use such devices to fill time and that keeps them from 'creating nothing'. Instead of being silent and thinking and listening to themselves, they anesthetize themselves with a lot of meaningless 'input'. I think it's extremely unhealthy, and that people who are confused or not happy stay that way because they keep themselves from thinking abut it. They start thinking: "It's just the way it is. I have to work 50 hour weeks every week and never talk to my family/friends and not be happy most of the time."

Then again, maybe they don't think that. They're probably not thinking at all, which is the problem! I would imagine they are totally on auto-pilot. But reality has a way of bringing even the most comprehensive auto-pilot system to a crashing halt. I was never as bad as what I've depicted above, but I was (and still am - though to a lesser degree) influenced by illusion. Once I realized it, I had to face where I was and decide if I had the balls to make things different. It took a lot of effort from me. Finding a new job, changing how I dealt with people, changing my goals, making myself get off my ass and DO things I've wanted to do but 'didn't have time for', etc. It's not easy to take back control of your life, but I did and Zen was a huge part of how I made it happen.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

At Long Last: The Autumn Poem!

It took me a while, but here it is at last! A while back I wrote about how Autumn had begun and a poem popped out of me. It was a toughie to finish because it seemed to demand a lot of rigor in the meter and rhyme, which I usually don't get real technical about. Plus there was a lot of imagery around music I had to figure out and bend to my purpose, which was a challenge. But here it is...probably not completely finished (though very close)...and as yet untitled. Send me a title suggestion if you like!

I've written a thousand songs,
but nobody must know.
They mean for me to take up law,
yet I would set the tempo
and live like a crescendo.

Like metronomes and prayer beads
they press a harmonious match,
when I know contrast and tension
give the movement passion
and build the highest climax.

Doctors fear I court a madness
and unstring my harp and mandolin.
Take my quills and parchment!
Though I greet, parley, and grin
yet I surge and score within.

The thunder claps past midnight,
and I cannot be found.
I finally broke from these salons
where every poem's bound
and nothing alive resounds.

They will find me on the morrow
when the storming finally stills.
I laid beneath the hosta leaves
and took November airs until
a rest my every measure filled.

And now they sing their songs:
all threnodies and sotto voce gall.
Valves and reeds will speak for me,
and all they tried to silence in me
will long outlive them all.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Learning To Fall

Surprise twist in hapkido class last night. We did kicks and teasing and everything, but we spent about half the class learning how to fall. This was my introduction into being on the other end of the flipping and teasing I've been doing. It was fun and surprisingly challenging, because you really have to fall, slam your arm down, and even flip yourself in a somersault kind of way. It's not a belly flop kind of landing, but it's not real gentle either.

It's much more difficult than it sounds! First of all, I found there's this instinctive recoil from falling down. A couple times, when someone was flipping me, I hesitated before allowing myself to go over. Sort of like when you are at the highdive board for the first time and you have to take a second to psych yourself before you dive. Second, you can't just toss yourself down. Your hands, arms, and legs are all in certain positions so, as you're flipping and twirling, you have to remember to do this with your right hand and that with your left. Not very easy at all, but I actually enjoyed it. It's all part of getting used to the physicality of more complex stuff.

Another thing that's started happening is having more actual contact when 'sparring'. When we pair up with senior belts to trade kicks, I often end up paired up with this one guy who encourages me to make contact when I kick him. He also makes me back up when he kicks at me so that I learn defense, and he always says on the jumping high kicks "C'mon, you can go higher!". When I do, he's like "Goooood!!!" He's really into it, and it's energizing to practice with him!

Anyway, after all the falling, I was a little stiff. I woke up this morning with bruised elbows and an ache across my shoulders and triceps. It felt real nice, but how funny is it that I have to learn how to fall?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Wolf Kahn

In my last post I referenced the artist Wolf Kahn so, since I really love his work, I thought I'd post an example. The first thing that attracted me to his work, of course, was his fantastic use of color. The picture here is a tamer one from him but, even here, you can see that he goes for the jugular with color. They are almost corrosive, like something you'd see flowing in a chemical spill that can eat through rubber. Yet, in his paintings, these colors are fully controlled and come to represent the intensity of light or the coolness of shadows. I also like that his use of color communicates a time of year or day, even though the colors are not at all what you would see in real life.

He seems to focus on landscapes, although his style and approach visually evoke the work of abstract expressionists. The harnessing of the freedom and psychology of abstract expressionism for something as traditional as landscape painting is a really interesting juxtaposition (how's that for the kind of arty-farty analysis like you'd find in a text book?). But I'm serious. I like abstract works, but I have to admit that there's something even more effective in a marriage of abstraction with the concrete. Perhaps this is because I feel that so much abstract art these days is more of a regurgitation of experiments that were done way back in the 40s and 50s. Anyone interested in a ANOTHER artist who does color field or 'splatter' paintings? Not me! I'd like to see something unique and innovative.

After art emancipated itself during the late 19th and 20th centuries, maybe it can back away from the need to rebel, react, or grandstand.

Monday, September 28, 2009

361 Miles

Jim and I did a bike ride yesterday afternoon. Fields of goldernrod with blotches of intense purple from wild asters. All the plants were thick and tall and at their zenith, yet there were some leaves on the path telling you it's not going to last much longer. When the leaves cover the edges of the path, it looks like an ancient, half-forgotten Indian trail. You can hear nuts and things crunching under your tires, and there's often the smell of dead leaves in the air that - to me - is completely invigorating!

At one point, we rode past a field we go by all the time, which Jim says is a soybean field. You can see it through the trees, but it's usually nothing special to look at. This time, we must have caught it just right, because the plats were yellowed and the slanting sun was hitting them fairly strongly. The combination created this intense YELLOW that rolled over the hills into the distance with nothing but a few large, dark green trees splotched in there to break it up. The fields seemed to be glowing; like a Wolf Khan painting come to life!

Overall, it was pretty windy, and it's looking like this coming week will be rainy and down into the low 60s. I'm worried that this might have been the last ride of the season. It was a good ride though, and it's been a good season. Definitely had some muddy rides. See the pic, where you can see the mud splatters you sometimes get. I love getting all dirty when I ride! We saw snakes, frogs, deer, and even a turtle crossing the path at different times during the season. Anyway, I calculated the we've probably gone 361 miles since about May, so that's an average of about 18 miles a week. Not too bad!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

'Milk'

Jim and I watched 'Milk' last night. What a moving, beautiful film! Of course, whenever I see movies or documentaries about the gay rights movement, I'm just so glad these people did what they did. I'm so grateful that their work has made this a country where I can exist as an openly gay man at work and in my neighborhood without facing (too much) bigotry.

This movie mixes actual footage from the times with tremendous acting by a great cast, especially Sean Penn who completely disappears into the role of Harvey Milk. He does the perfect balance of adding some swish to the role without turning Milk into the stereotypical Hollywood-film homo. From scene one, you forget you are watching an actor play the part (let alone an actor we all are very familiar with). That's really the mark of a master. Plus, unlike Tom Hanks and Antonio Bandares who didn't have the guts to do an onscreen kiss in "Philadelphia" and, as a result, insulted the characters they played, Penn and Franco are both man enough to commit to their roles and not shy away from the fact that gay men kiss just like 'normal people'.

What a hateful bitch that Anita Bryant was! OMG! The horrible things that came out of her mouth! It's amazing to me that after all the examples of civil right movements in our country's history, that people still go to the same tired arguments to demonize massive groups of people. At some point, don't they reflect and think: "These arguments were wrong for blacks, women, Jews, etc. etc. etc....so if these arguments are the only ones I have to use against gays, then maybe I'm as wrong as those people were to use them then?"


Thank you Harvey Milk! And thanks to all the people who have shed their blood and lost their lives so we can live in a better world.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Elgin Marbles

The Elgin Marbles are some of the remaining fragments of sculpture that originally were part of the Parthenon. They have been in the British Museum for something like 200 years. For the the last 30 years, Greece has asked that they be sent back to Greece, but the Brits have refused for a variety of reasons. The dialogue has gotten really heated in more recent years, with some who side with the Greeks even accusing the Brits of stealing the marbles from Greece. I have very strong view on this debate, and I'm going to air them here because no one I know has the least interest in discussing this subject with me.

First of all, the British did not steal the Elgin Marbles. The Museum's ownership of them is completely legal. On top of that, anyone who cares about the marbles should thank the British for acquiring them, as it is highly unlikely they would have survived to this day without the careful preservation and safety in which they have been kept by the British Museum. So there is no justification to call the Brits thieves (at least not in this case).

Further, even if the Brits did steal the marbles, Greece has no standing to demand their return. Britain acquired the marbles from the Ottomans (who controlled Greece at the time). I believe some feel that the Ottoman authorization shouldn't be valid since they had no vested interest in the antiquities of any country they were occupying. However, this position really just undermines the Greek position. The marbles belonged to the city state of Athens, so only the Athenian government would have any right to demand their return (as being the 'original owners'). But that government no longer exists.

So, the marbles belong to the Brits and they are justified to keep them as long as they like, especially since the Greeks have been so completely insulting about the whole thing. However...

Sometimes being 'right' doesn't mean you're doing the right thing. Despite the legality of the acquisition, the British Museum should return the marbles for a reason that transcends politics, nationalism, morals, and law. The marbles should go back to reunite - as much as can be done - a piece of art that should ideally never have been separated in the first place: the Parthenon.

The Parthenon is more than just a building; it is a piece of art that visually represents everything that ancient Athens stood for. It is a touchstone of heritage for the entire Western World. Now the British Museum often says that there's no point to return the marbles since they can never be reattached to the Parthenon. Maybe they can't be, but that's irrelevant. Seeing the marbles in the British Museum irretrievably divorces them them from their intended context. It would be like seeing the head of the 'David' statue - without the body - in a museum in Cleveland and expecting to get an feel for what the whole sculpture. It's impossible to get the real - and intended - impact.

I can say this confidently because I have been to the Parthenon. While I understand where the Elgin marbles 'fit' into the whole, it would have been far better to see them at the same time as I saw the rest of the building, even if they were not attached. At least then I have the best context possible for viewing this masterpiece of human architecture and art.

I do not think this would lead to a slippery slope requiring the return of all antiquities to their country of origin. It's not a matter of a single statue or a painting; this is a piece of art that has been broken apart and spread across the globe (for whatever reason). Reuniting the pieces makes this a fairly unique case.

For the Elgin Marbles and - by extension - any piece of the Parthenon, whether the piece belongs to Greece, Britain, or all humanity isn't the relevant issue. Nor is it relevant to discuss how long some part of the Parthenon has been somewhere in determining whether it should go back. The important question to ask is: Do we or do we not want to preserve great pieces of art? If the answer is yes, then the British acted to save an important part of this major site, and they should now complete this act by helping to reunite the pieces of the Parthenon as best as they are able. The Parthenon is a unique object, an architectural artwork, and keeping it scattered across the world - for any reason - is not in the best interests of anyone who cares about art or history.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Peteradio

Some of the latest adds to Peteradio:

"All is Forgiven" - Carmen Rizzo - I am becoming more and more impressed with Rizzo's adventurous spirit. He really works to merge different music together and that creates things that just totally bend your ear. This is a bit of trip-hop-like stuff you find on his albums, but he's into everything from Niyaz to collaborations with throat singers from Northeast Asia.

"Honey" - Lisa Shaw - The voice of smooth house. Her Salted Music debut is stronger than the album she did for Naked Music, but I still feel like it's a bit limp. Some good tracks nonetheless.

"If" - Colette - No summer music playlist is complete without a little house. Colette's music has substance and it sounds like she can actually sing, which differentiates her from house played as 'club music'.

"Dirty" - J-Boogie's Dubtronic Science - His Soul Vibrations album is an instant classic. There's hip-hop grit in the production, smoky live brass, cool-ass keys, and a groove that is just sick. This is one of the best releases of 2008.

"Love You" - Maxwell - I am still enjoying his comeback album, and this track is my favorite on the CD. A build up from piano chords to a complete explosion of passion in Maxwell's singing and then a cool down with an organ. No real chorus or anything, but there's a fantastic emotional build in this song and I love to go along for the ride!

"Close "- Raashan Ahmad - This is a mellow joint that sounds utterly contemporary but has at its heart everything that originally made hip-hop great. The whole album this track came from (The Push) is very strong. Ahmad really writes from the heart and, by dealing with meaningful issues, he comes across as far more 'real' than all gangsta-posing twits on the charts these days (none of whom can actually rap).

On the radar: Nelly Furtado has a new Spanish language album out. She worried me quite a bit with the watered-down crap on her last album (which I didn't buy save for a couple tracks - and, no, "Promiscuous" wasn't one of them). Samples from this album sound like she's back to making music, though I'm curious why she chose Spanish rather than Portuguese?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

High Priest And Heretic

poem 8 from The Ancient Elm

Twenty years ago,
Wizard of the Wood,
outcast and alone,
I ciphered
wind earth air trees
into mythology and light.

But today,
I’m the High Priest
of a twisted myth,
practicing a Craft
whose incense invocations icons
reveal nothing.

I must split from
wand and sword and scepter
and become the heretic
who embraces darkness
that is merely new light
unciphered.

Some of the things that got me thinking about this cycle was not only the approach of 40 and viewing myself differently and embracing Zen. Between these two things, there was a feeling of charting new territory and looking at myself in a different way, and that was not always comfortable. For example, it was surprisingly jarring to me to think of myself as a man and not a young man for the first time. Not unpleasant or limiting or sad, but very, very different perspective. This is where the idea of turning from a high priest to a heretic comes in.

In the last poem, the speaker has achieved everything possible along his last trajectory and has stagnated a bit. The thing he sought was never really intended to be the end of all goals, but it became that because he has spent a lot of time getting there and there was never a need to think 'and then what?' Now there is. And, at first, the thinking is to revisit who you've been in the past. However, as shown in the Imperial Triptych, you really can't do that.

A person has to try new things and, sometimes, that requires starting over a bit and not being as effective at everything as you're used to being (turning from a high priest to a heretic). So the speaker splits from 'wand to sword to scepter' which has become a mantra that doesn't really apply to himself twenty years on. He must embrace darkness (the unknown) and view it as a chance to move on to new goals and achievements.