Sunday, July 26, 2009

...and then there's the Kindle

While I'm on the topic of technology, here's another one that I was initially resistant to (though far less vehemently that the cell phone stuff). I love having a hardcover book in my hands to read. I like the weight of it, the feel of the paper, the smell of the book (I actually smell my hardcover books as soon as I open them, yes), the silk bookmark that often comes with them, and the sight of them on the shelf. Definitely a bibliophile!

Even so, when I first saw the Kindle on, I was very intrigued. After all, part of being a bibliophile is that I do not like my books to get all messed up. Paperbacks I could care less about, even 'high quality' paperbacks. But the idea of packing a hardcover or taking it to the beach? Gives me the willies just thinking about the potential scuffs, worn corners, and stains. And then, of course, you really have to commit to a book to bring it along. What if you change your mind? So the idea of Kindle - a durable device that holds hundreds of books - was very appealing.

Still, I know would miss the hardcover book. And there are other objections I had: being able to mark where you leave off, the quality of the reading experience (I stare at screens all day), will anything I want to read be available or will it all be trash like Stephen King and Danielle Steele, etc. etc.

The more I investigate Kindle, however, the less the objections seem to weigh on me. You can download direct using the Kindle and get the book right away, so there's the convenience factor. You can 'dogear' pages and type notes, which I honestly cannot bring myself to do in my hardcovers. So this is actually an advantage for the Kindle. To me, the display looks pretty easy on the eyes and you can make the text bigger or smaller. The Kindle can hold 1,500 books now, which answers a prior concern I had that I would fill up the Kindle pretty quickly. Books are still very reasonably priced, and I've found a lot of stuff for sale (like novels in Emile Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle) that are fairly rare. The price of $299 means it would quickly pay for itself too.

I still hesitate because there's no clear indication of how you recharge it. Is it going to take two days? Is there a docking station I can set it in so it is always charged? I also wonder if, once I buy the Kindle, am I stuck buying books only from amazon, because that would be a deal killer. No outlet offers everything, and I want to get what I want to get even if I have to go elsewhere. I'm also not aware of whether you can move books off the Kindle and onto your laptop. I would see myself keeping only stuff I like or may come back to on the Kindle and place other works on my laptop.

Bottom line, I guess I can still have hardcovers, but perhaps I would only get them for absolute faves, or if I find a rare/old edition, or if it's something specially made (like my hardcover edition of The Agony and the Ecstasy which is in a box slipcover and has color plates of Michelangelo's art inside). These sorts of lovingly created books are so enjoyable to have.

And the big question is, of course, where is all this going? At some point, I'll bet the iPhone will develop a Kindle-like function (maybe they already have one!?). If so, I'd hate to buy a separate device for reading and have it become obsolete within a year. I'll have to keep pondering this one. In the meantime, I am still on my Herman Melville kick, and I'm about a third of the way through his fifth novel (White-Jacket).

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Seduced by the iPhone

I don't hate cell phones, blackberrys, palm pilots, bluetooth or any of that stuff. I'm just disgusted with how people become enslaved to it. Bring back the second hand smoke, I say. It's much preferable to the zombies running around glued to their inane digital chattering devices.

I hate that I can no longer be anywhere without some asshole's ringtone going off. I hate idiots who speak into their phones in something akin to a bellow so that everyone around them has to listen to them prattle about nothing for ten minutes. I hate soccer moms holding up traffic because they can't steer their SUVs while yakking on the damn cell phone. I hate riding my bike on a stretch of nature trail and seeing someone stomping along, ignoring the outdoors and staring at a cell phone and texting. I hate people that play with their phones and call people without having anything to say whenever they find themselves at an airport or alone with nothing to do. I think people are already afraid to be silent and do nothing because they might reflect on their lives and not like what they see. Cell phones make it easier for people to avoid themselves by keeping 'busy'.

I love technology, but I hope I am someone that uses technology and does not let it use me. I actually turn my cell phone off and leave it off for days - even weeks - at a time. When I went on vacation and my boss asked for my number in case he had to contact me, I said 'NO!' I do not twitter, because I do not give a crap what anyone is doing every minute of the day. It's all I can do to keep myself interested in what I'm doing every minute of the day! So, in short, I am not interested in being 'connected', and my efforts remain unconnected have done nothing to hamper my relationships with friends and family or to hurt my career.

So now that I've outlined my gripes about the misuse of technology, let me make it clear that I am not a Luddite. I love the iPhone!!!!! I have two friends who have one, and I want one. Mind you, based on the above commentary, it's clear that I do not need one. This is sheer Veruca Salt
styled consumer acquisitiveness. I want an iPhone! I want it now!

I love how the Internet, GPS, cell phone, .mp3 player, photo album, (to an extent) your computer, and who knows what else can all be held in your hand in one device. I love how you can use your finger to move stuff around. I love the look of it, the ease of it, and the convenience of it. In short, I am being seduced by the iPhone. Of course, I may yet realize that I do not need this toy and that buying it is a waste of money, but I think this is unlikely. Once I glom onto a bit of technology, I go all the way immediately. For example, within a few weeks of getting my iPod I got the speaker to go with it, trashed my stereo, almost never bought another physical CD, and fervently championed that people should be free to burn or share or steal music because it's a form of free advertising for the artist.

Who knows what will become of me if I heed the siren song of the iPhone. Probably nothing, now that I think of it. For no matter how entranced I become with the iPhone (or anything else), the spell will undoubtedly be broken when the latest Black Eyed Peas ringtone goes off to announce that my second cousin's aunt just fed her cat!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

April 2010: St. John, Virgin Islands

With London scheduled for the Fall, we set our sights on where to go in the new year. We went to St. John's last year and loved it but, when Jim mentioned going back, I kind of resisted because I preferred to go someplace new. But the more I thought about how much we loved the villa we stayed at, the number of beaches we haven't seen there, and the great snorkeling, the more I thought "Well, why not?"

St. John's was the first time I saw squid in the water while snorkeling. There were three or four of them and each was about a foot long. Colors were rippling up and down their bodies from their chromatophores, and they were just hovering there. Totally cool! They like aliens on Earth! The best snorkeling I think I've had was in the Turks and Caicos Islands, but St. John's definitely was very good too.

The picture is me while we were hiking around the island (you can click on it for an even larger view - and then you can see my unattractive squinting, as well). Check out that empty beach! It's empty because we went in April and, although the weather is beautiful at that time, there are hardly any cruise boats or tourists. So we'd get up early, and I'd drive us in the 4WD jeep to a beach like the one above, where we'd be practically alone for much of the day! The villa had a hammock along the patio with a commanding view of the sea so, each afternoon, after a morning of swimming and fun, I could read and nap there in the shade and stare out over the water.

I can't wait to go back! Maybe this time, I'll convince Jim to go deep sea fishing with me. Someday, though, I have GOT to learn to scuba dive!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Thomas Cleary - Zen Essence

The most useful book on Zen I have found is, so far, this book of Zen sayings. Compiled and translated by Thomas Cleary, who apparently has spent many years translating a great deal of Eastern thought into English, Zen Essence is a terrific book. I don't think you need to know much about Zen to find this book useful as an introduction yet, at the same time, the more you do know the more you will be able to get out of the book.

What I especially value about Zen Essence is that the sayings are pulled from ancient Zen Masters only. I usually prefer material like this, rather than material created by contemporary 'Zen masters'. Too many contemporary writers come across like New Age gas bags rather than actual practitioners of Zen. Plus, I think there's more validity in getting as close to the source as I can, rather than reading someone's interpretation of someone's interpretation of what someone else wrote.

Many times, before I meditate, I read one of the sayings in this book. While I'm calming my mind, I don't actively think about the saying. However, once I'm all quieted down I find that the saying resonates a bit in my mind and my awareness of its meanings seems to just come naturally. I've had some real epiphanies while meditating in this way and, of course, I keep track of all this in a journal dedicated solely to Zen.

Perhaps, in addition to the Emerson nuggets I'm sharing, from time to time I'll pull some of these thoughts into the blog. My only fear is that what I learn through Zen is usually pretty personal or, more accurately, is most relevant to myself. So it may not be at all useful to anyone else. That's why I usually keep it to myself, not to mention that makes it more likely I'll actually apply what I've learned and profit from it. I've found that people who preach about other people's failings tend to spend a lot less time acknowledging their own or doing anything about them. Plus, if I went around spewing what I've gained from Zen, I have no doubt my friends would find me insufferable pretty quickly!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Rank Test!

I'm approved for the yellow belt rank test! The test takes place on August 28th, which scared me at first because we're leaving for London in late August. Turns out it's the night before we leave, but I don't care. I'm going!

I think the test will consist of the basic punches and kicks, the wrist escapes, the first two throws, and teasing moves. I think I've got this stuff down pretty well, though there's always room for polish. In any case, I've certainly got loads of time to practice.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


On my iPod, I have a playlist called 'Peteradio' that I limit to 50 songs. As I get new songs, I pull them in - along with a song or two from each new album I buy - and move out the older stuff. To keep the listening interesting and somewhat smooth, I rarely include classical, jazz, US pop music, rock, or any rootsy stuff and keep it to trip hop, afro pop, chill, trance, ambient, pop from overseas, hip hop (not rap), deep house, brazilian, IDM, etc. This gives me a nice long mix to listen to, and it never gets stale. Here's some of what's currently on Peteradio:

Always - Gabrielle -Awesome pop song. She's been huge in the UK for a decade.
Indian Fever - David Starfire
Borderline (radio edit) - Michael Gray f/ Shelly Poole
Divine Idylle - Vanessa Paradis - Johnny Depp's babymama makes great music in France.
The Fear (StoneBridge radio edit) - Lily Allen - Great critique of the darker side of US culture.
Illuminate - Latrice - Top notch deep house track.
Manifesto - Vanessa Daou - Smoky, sexy, with a trunk throbbing hip hop beat.
I Was Made For Lovin' You - Kate The Cat - Lounge, lounge, lounge. A cover of a Kiss song.
Manifold (morning edit) - Aes Dana
Stars - Erika Jayne
Justify - ATB
Beija A Mim (Saudade) - Zuco 103 - Fun-kaaaayyy!
Me Cai - Pacifika
Love's The Only Drug - Ultra Nate - She's been the queen of house for a decade at least.
Take Off The Blues - The Foreign Exchange
Entoto Dub - Dub Colossus - Cultural mish-mashing at it's best: dub reggae, chill, and Ethiopian music.
Pretty Wings - Maxwell - He's back!
Indigo (Androcell remix) - Tripswitch
After Party - Ozomatli - Mostly sung in Spanish, but the party vibe transcends language.
Give The Drummer Some - Nickodemus - Interesting artist from Soul Seduction.
Sirens - Carmen Rizzo f/ Kate Havnevik
Mirror - Supreme Beings Of Leisure - Slammin' trip-hop cultural commentary.
I've Given Enough - Blue Six - Ultra-sexy sax, Aya on vocals, and from the Naked Music label.
Ishq - Niyaz - Sensual groove and Azam Ali singing 18th Century Urdu poetry. Wicked!
Vampires - Thievery Corporation - From Radio Retaliation. See my review here in the blog.
Fire On The Mountain - Asa - French/Nigerian artist on a great protest song.
Azul - Bebel Gilberto - If you can't chill to this Brazilian import, then you just plain suck.
Long Life - Dela f/ Talib Kweli - Real hip-hop, not fake-ass bubblegum shit like T.I. and Cam'ron. And you have to get it from a French producer. Sad comment on US music right there.
Mind Wall - Towa Tei f/ Miho Hatori - This Japanese/Korean DJ always twists my ear. I love him!
NYC - Kasema Kalifah Caines - Spoken word to a nasty-dirty beat.
Right Now - Samantha James - Smooooooth! From the deep house diva on the OM label.
Change - Joy Denalane f/ Lupe Fiasco - Soulful R&B from a German/South African artist.
Night Train - Timewriter - Renowned German deep house producer on the Plastic City label.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


poem 4 from The Ancient Elm

Outcast of the Untamed Wood,
I shine myself.
But willed or unwilled
such light draws eyes:
illuminating some,
blinding others.

For to be
is to sharpen the sword,
don battle armor,
and light the bonfire
enemies and allies
array themselves around.

The Castle Keepers
hear of me from oracles
of entrail and ash.
They contrive war -
the Wizard of the Ancient Elm
in their eyes a Knight of Swords.

Powerful in my mythology,
armored of myself,
outside of illusion,
my gaze blasts their walls,
shatters every gate,
scatters them before me.

Invincible Wizard-Knight,
I gallop into the Castle
to the people's adulation.
My banners flying proud,
trumpets, streamers, and flowers
bless my armor.

For the art of siegecraft
is to be...
and watch the world
wrap around you,
wand to sword to scepter.

In this poem, I wanted to explore the idea that finding your true essence and 'shining' that can lead to you creating friends and enemies, because some people will like or dislike what you are. Some even see you as a threat (seeing the Wizard as a Knight of Swords). However, I've found that so long as you remain true to your essence discovered while meditating that you ultimately prevail. It doesn't mean that you win every battle, but that you ultimately find a place of peace and happiness. This is why I characterize the Wizard-Knight as invincible; it's possible to deter a person who has been enlightened but you cannot stop them in the long run. I also feel that when you are freed of illusion, there is a confidence that you exude that people are drawn to. So the speaker in the poem lays siege to the Castle merely by being and is embraced by the people he once ran from. Also, when you are enlightened, you are in control of yourself and your life, so the 'world wraps around you' (rather than you conforming to cope with the world). This turns the power of enlightenment and truth (the wand) to power (the sword) and ultimately to control over your own destiny (the scepter). At base, this is the idea that you do not need to contend or fight or strain overtly to prevail. You simply have to be and hold to that. All else follows.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Herman Melville - Redburn (1849)

Herman Melville had quickly achieved renown as a writer with his first novel Typee in 1846. Just over three years later, his success as a novelist hit a brick wall when his attempt at a more ambitious project (his third novel, Mardi) was a resounding flop, critically and financially. Once it was clear to Melville that his glorious experiment was a failure, he quickly produced another book to recapture his public. Written in a style that had more in common with Typee and Omoo, Melville's fourth novel achieved little notice. In fact, Melville would never again enjoy even modest success as a writer.

This is unfortunate, because Redburn is his best book to this point. Although his writing returns to the crisp style employed for his South Sea adventure tales, the focus has shifted to recount his experiences as a greenhorn sailor on a ship going from New York harbor to Liverpool and returning with a cargo of immigrants. Like Typee, Melville uses the story to alternately entertain, inform, and communicate a particular point. Unlike his colorful first novel, however, Redburn is much darker in tone.

The protagonist, Wellingborough Redburn, is a young man of good birth who, due to reduced fortune, has decided to ship as a sailor. Redburn's sometimes florid expectations regarding etiquette, as well as his lack of experience with the sea, make him the perfect narrator for a modern reader who likely knows as little as he does. Melville's knowledge of sailing ships helps him set the stage as he shows how even in words, a greenhorn can get into trouble, and this also tinges the story with a realism that is bracing. I found myself very engaged with Redburn as a person, for he is easily Melville's most fully realized character to this point. Even when I could see poor Redburn was making a big mistake, I could relate to him as he tried to make the best of his situation. I keenly felt his homesickness, his loneliness, and especially his joy at the end of his voyage.

Melville also does a good job depicting an array of secondary characters which really come alive as people. There's the pretentious Captain Riga, ill-fated Harry Bolton, the sinister Jackson, and a romantically sketched Italian immigrant named Carlo. This helps color the tapestry of experiences Redburn meets on his voyage, including learning how to get by as a greenhorn, the rampant poverty he finds in Liverpool, seeing an Indian vessel, and the realities of immigration at this time. This last is most interesting as an eye-opening dose of reality about what it took for many of our ancestors to come to America. Not a pretty picture at all.

Melville has several themes that he explores in the pages of Redburn although he does so without sacrificing his plot or without resorting to the pompous overwriting that sank Mardi. First, there is the painful consciousness Redburn has of his former station in life and his current poverty. This flows easily into his experiences with the poor of Liverpool and the exploitation of immigrants. He is also sympathetic to the sailor's life, with some hair-raising episodes relating to the drinking and dissipation that overtakes many of them. Lastly, there is the coming of age of Redburn himself. At the start of the voyage, he is as green as green can be and a bit of a snob. By the end, he has a lot more common sense and is even a guide for his friend Harry. One definitely feels Redburn has learned from and even is glad of his adventures and that he will meet his situation in life with more success because of his sea voyage.

Altogether, Redburn is Melville's tightest and most rewarding book yet. The darker tone does not depress or overwhelm the material, but rather renders the narrative more true-to-life and thereby enhances the dramatic tension of the story. Unfortunately, Melville couldn't appreciate his own creation and only reluctantly retreated from the pretenses of Mardi. In his letters, he was quite open about how he only wrote Redburn to make money.

This suggests to me that Melville's weakness as a writer was that he had no sense that simply written prose does not equate to simple-minded prose. Instead, he apparently linked pretentious, ornate text with art. If only he had realized the soul of a book is more important that the words it's wrapped in, he might never have ruined his career with Mardi and maybe he could have better appreciated the excellent book he created with Redburn.

Michael Jackson RIP

Okay, let's get this out of the way: Michael Jackson was definitely a few sandwiches short of a picnic. I get that. However, that doesn't change anything. The guy was a musical genius with historic impact, and his passing is a very sad thing.

As for the allegations against him, I think they can be ignored. Remember: being weird is not proof of being a pedophile, and Michael was found not guilty in court. The LAPD never made anything stick (and we all know they tried like hell!). Plus, if I remember correctly, many of the alleged 'victims' were from scam artist families so, unless some actual proof comes up, I'm willing to give Wacko Jacko the benefit of the doubt on the Jesus Juice stuff (even though his 'sharing your bed' confession completely creeped me out).

When I think of Michael Jackson, I think of how much he changed music. I think people forget that, when Thriller was released, the cards were totally stacked against black artists. Billboard and the whole music industry segregated music with a pop chart and a 'black music' chart. MTV straight out refused to play videos by black artists. In fact, most white people hadn't heard any music by black artists since the Disco Sucks movement, because the radio stations played either pop/rock or 'black music'.

Michael shattered all of this. After Thriller, you couldn't talk about pop music without talking about him, and MTV had to drop their racist programming or become irrelevant. Radio soon followed. With Michael paving the way, the door was opened for Madonna, Prince, the rap crossover, and - ultimately - the end of the odious 'black music' charts. Given that this musical segregation didn't end until 20-25 years after the civil rights movement got us all drinking out of the same water fountain, it was clearly Michael's talent and success that led to its demise. Every white person should take a second and imagine their iPod without any black artists, dance music, R&B, or hip-hop/rap on it. Before Michael broke these barriers down, that's what the musical landscape was like. Whitebread.

Plus he was a star if ever there was one. Every video Michael released, especially from Thriller, was a huge event. A gather-round-the-TV kind of event. Of course, videos aren't anywhere near as relevant now. When Michael did the moonwalk, or wore the zippered jacket, or did anything, everyone was talking about it. Fashion changed because of him. He also brought dancing - real dancing - into music and music video. As for live shows, with few exceptions, a rock or pop concert used to be a bunch of people standing on a stage, barely moving, playing instruments, and singing their stuff. After Michael, you had to put on a SHOW. It was all about a mixture of fashion, dance, special effects, and music. The big production tours of today got their start with MJ.

It's no exaggeration to say that if Michael hadn't happened, that the history of pop music since the early 80s would have been completely different (and a lot less interesting). Although I didn't buy his albums after Thriller, I loved most of his songs and it wasn't until Invincible that I got any sense he was resting on his laurels. I would have been very interested to see what his comeback would have been like, and what his next set of music would have sounded like. With popular American music having spent the last ten years circling the drain, maybe someone of Michael's stature could have pumped some talent, energy, and creativity back into music.

Bottom line, I think he was a great performer, writer, and singer, and I'm sad the guy isn't around anymore.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Another goal? (part 2) & other threads

It looks like none of the schools near me offer any kind of Masters in English or English Lit. Well, that kind of stinks! My only option is to check out degree programs online, though I wonder if they'll let you get a degree like this over the Internet. I would imagine many English academics are anti-Internet hippies. I'll keep investigating.

On the plus side, the weather has gotten a lot better and I've been biking at least 20 miles a week. Going out this AM and hope to do 30 miles. Of course the weather didn't improve enough to avoid a pile of rain on the Fourth. That was pretty depressing; had to stay inside all day. Well, at least I got a lot of reading done on my current Melville novel (Redburn), which is much better than that mess (Mardi). Hapkido also continues to go well, though I've taken a week off while my parents are visiting.

Lastly, I contacted an old friend (Ray) from out of the blue and we'll probably meet up for dinner sometime to catch up. So fun! He's been in a relationship for about fifteen years, and we used to do all sorts of cool stuff when we hung out years ago. I remember one time we went into one of those queerboi clothing stores that line the streets of most pink ghettos and went around making fun of all the dorky clothes. The salespeople glared at us the entire time but, because we were gay, there wasn't much they could do about it! I suppose we've probably matured by now...maybe?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Thievery Corporation - Radio Retaliation (2008)

I've been listening to Thievery Corporation since their 2000 album The Mirror Conspiracy, and I really enjoy their work a lot. As the years have gone by, there has been an increasingly political bent to their work, mainly around the concept of globalization. However, I felt that some of this was more suggested (i.e., in the photo book that came with 2002's The Richest Man in Babylon) rather than making up a big part of their actual music. At the same time, I was beginning to find a sameness and overly chilled approach in their music that was making new releases non-essential for me. For example, I checked out 2005's The Cosmic Game, but ultimately just bought the Versions EP.

The duo's newest CD, Radio Retaliation, is for me not so much a return to form as the Corporation taking their music to the next level. The chill tracks are still there, but they are offset by a surprising - and welcome - number of faster tempo, gritty pieces. In addition, almost every track is overtly political and addresses the pains of globalization head on. The unique CD package includes the lyrics on a huge poster intended 'to convey a transformative political and social message' including quotes, both insightful and controversial, from a host of thinkers and activists.

What's especially admirable about Radio Retaliation is that it does not substitute the fact that it's 'political' or 'making a statement' for the need to deliver great tracks. Too many CDs with 'messages' spend too much time being pseudo-hip and not enough making listenable music. Not so on Radio Retaliation. The Corporation delivers a surprisingly varied set from slamming jams like 'Mandala' and 'Vampires', to mid-tempo stuff like 'The Numbers Game', to the chill vibes the Corporation is so well know for ('La Femme Parallel'). The closer 'Sweet Tides' is like a dose of balm after the hard-nosed reality of much of the music and is a great way to close the CD.

This album is destined to go down as one of the best trip-hop/lounge albums ever. It's ambitious, well-written, impeccably produced, and delivers a hard-hitting message wrapped in great music and never gets preachy or whiny. Come to think of it, an endorsement like that means Radio Retaliation is one of the best releases of the last year, period. Get it!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Emerson (from 'Self-Reliance')

'Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.'

This is one of my favorite Emerson quotes and, like many quotes from him, it is attacked without an understanding of what he in fact means. I suppose this is a danger in pulling any quote from its context. The response to this quote is really sad and usually goes something like: "Yes, but people have to conform to some degree because if everyone just did what they wanted society would collapse."

The reason I find this reaction sad is because it is based on two absolutely horrific assumptions that I think people would reject if they knew they were assuming them. First, the reaction assumes nonconformity (i.e., freedom) means everyone disagrees with everyone else and ends up becoming ax murderers, thieves, or sex fiends. Second, the reaction assumes that the continuation of 'society' is a higher purpose than individual freedom or happiness. Both are absolutely false assumptions.

First, just because you disagree with people as a rule doesn't make you a nonconformist. Nor does being a criminal or habitual law breaker make you a nonconformist. I would argue that a society of nonconformists would find common ground on basic things like the sanctity of life or the value of cooperation because doing so is natural and leads to mutual benefit. As a result, society would not fall apart. If anything, society would be more cohesive because it would be based on things all people can agree on. It would also be open to people questioning themselves and each other rather than being forced to adhere to inflexible (and usually unnecessary) 'rules' imposed on all by a few.

Second, the perpetuation of a 'society' is not ever more important that the happiness of its individual members. Anyone who thinks it is should check out Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, because this is where that idea is played out openly. It's not a pretty picture. I'm willing to say categorically that any society that might fall apart because people pursued what they wanted based on the integrity of their minds isn't a society worth saving.

Here's some context around Emerson's quote that clarifies his position: 'Whoso would be a man, must be a non-conformist. He...must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.' So he's not tossing out 'the good' with conformity; he's saying we should always question what is 'good' and not just accept what a president, priest, or figure in authority says is good. We must question, argue, and if necessary defy the 'good', if it does not seem to be good to our minds. If something is good, it should be easy to convince people and get them to go along with it. It is also easy to defeat people who fight the 'good' by appealing to people's better judgement and self-interest. In contrast, people get ugly and violent when touting a 'good' when they don't know why it is 'good' or - worse - a 'good' they know isn't good and are fighting for just to conform or preserve 'society'.

Ralph Waldo Emerson - Great American Thinker

One of my favorite periods of literature - perhaps my absolute favorite - is early American literature (I should probably say 'early US literature'). I've always been fascinated with what people were like at the beginning of the nation. There was a lot of high idealism (utopians, transcendentalism, the Revolution) mixed with crushing inhumanity (i.e., Native Americans, the slave trade).

One of the best things about the period is Emerson and his essays. For me, they represent the best of the early American spirit: being a pioneer in act and/or thought, skeptical of authority, idealistic but very pragmatic, and self-reliant. There's a lot of wisdom in his words, and his transcendentalism has a lot of Zen to it. It is often that I think of my thick paperback of Emerson essays the same way Christians think of The Bible. It's where I go for fuel, and I always keep a copy of his writing in the nightstand next to my bed.

I love hardcover books and always get them for anything I like to read. However, I can't ever have a hardcover for Emerson's writings, because I just mark up the margins and underline things as I read too much! Part of this is to help clarify what I'm getting out of him, because he can write some pretty long, winding sentences. Part of it is that he is just so 'quotable'. All throughout his writing are phrases that you can pull out as rules to live by.

Anyway, I thought that in my blog I would every so often share some of my favorite Emerson nuggets. Sort of my way of proselytizing on behalf of good old Ralph.

Friday, July 3, 2009


poem 3 from The Ancient Elm

Deep in my Untamed Wood,
I gaze into a volume
of late autumn sky,
close my eyes,
become my breath,
vanish into seas of air.

echoes of wind in
Antarctic Wastes…
endless grasses tossing in
Great Plains…
bottomless blue of the
Caicos Deep…

In sympathy
I connect all places
and create…Nothing.
It is there I can

Original light,
cleansed prism,
souvenir from my mythology
brought back
to this world
like a newborn star.

'Zazen' is the term used in Zen for sitting in meditation, so this poem is about what the speaker does when he goes 'outside' into the Untamed Wood as described in Wizard of the Wood. The Untamed Wood for me also represents escaping the place where things are ordered or structured based on illusion, which makes it harder to figure out what you need as opposed to what you are supposed to do. It is here that the speaker finds a clear sense of himself and a clear purpose. Meditation can give this because it is about reaching a place of quiet and peaceful reflection. At the same time, it's reaching a place where you are not thinking about anything per se.

The best way I heard it described is that ideas and thoughts come to you, but you only acknowledge them before letting them go. Sort of like if a helium balloon came near me. I would glance at it, softly tap it away, and go back to what I was doing. I usually think something like "That's interesting; I'll think about that later." If I think about anything it might be a koan I read.

In any case, reaching this point - called 'samadhi' - is a place that I find realizations and knowledge just come without effort because I've cleared my mind of clutter (illusion): 'am I going to get that promotion?', 'what is she saying about me?', 'what should I do about [insert current drama]?' etc.. Finding this knowledge is what is meant by 'shining myself', because so much of taking control of your life is just being true to yourself.

The last stanza explains the power of coming back from samadhi. I feel like I go back to my day-to-day life calmer and with a clearer sense of what is important and what is not, which includes drama I'm creating in my own head and things I can't really do anything about (and the not important stuff is most of what I - and most people - are usually wound up about). This is why Zen is so great; it frees you of illusions and lets you shine easily.