Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 - The Year In Review

At the start of this year, I put together a list of seven goals I wanted to attain during 2010. 'Resolutions' if you will. I also posted an entry where I ranted about how unwise it is to create resolutions. Well, apparently I've proven myself right, for I achieved only two (maybe two-and-a-half) of the resolutions I made. When I realized this, I got kind of down on myself. Why wasn't I able to accomplish things I felt were important? What have I been doing all year?

To answer this question, I read back through this blog. What I realized is that the movie Up has the right idea. Life isn't the adventure you plan; it's the one that happens to you. No, I didn't achieve most of my resolutions. But I had some great experiences in 2010, and I achieved some terrific things. To celebrate the close of the year, I wanted to summarize the things I'm proud of in 2010:

1) I'm sitting in zazen on a regular basis, and I've worked through many koans in Mumonkan as part of my growth in Zen.

2) In Hapkido, I was promoted first to my green belt and then to my greenbelt/bluestripe. I've also begun sparring, so I'm getting to the next level of my training that way as well.

3) Jim and I returned to St. John's for a wonderful vacation, including a hike through the interior of the island to see petroglyphs.

4) At work, I took three small accounts and grew them so I have both key pieces of business (ad testing and brand tracking) on all three. One of the accounts is now in the Top 10 revenue generators for the office. At the same time, I was turned around the 'account from hell': a large account that has been losing money and driving employees to quit for over a decade. It's now making money and staff is stable.

5) I got back into reading in a big way. All year I was engaged in reading at least one book. I finished Moby Dick, meaning I got most of the way through a self-assigned goal of reading Herman Melville's novels in the order he wrote them. I also made substantial progress on my goal of reading the 20 novels in Emile Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle. Five of them are under my belt.

6) I hit the weights on a pretty consistent basis all year long.

7) Over the middle six months of the year, I rode 272 miles on my bike. Not a huge amount of mileage, but it's still pretty good. Saw lots of wildlife and had plenty of time in nature. Plus it's just great to get outside!

8) Jim and I had a saw Lisa Lampanelli live.

9) A robin laid eggs in a nest below my study window, and I watched them hatch and grow.

10) I joined the 21st century with my first real cell phone (a smart phone, in fact), and I'm doing the 'connected' thing without sacrificing my private space.

11) Jim and I investigated the life-changing idea of buying and operating an inn. We worked on a business plan, toured a property we were interested in, interacted with members of the community, and met with Chamber of Commerce. While we decided against the project, it's still something we put effort into and allowed ourselves to be open to. An experience, if you will.

12) I proved my gentlemanly skill at 'holding my liquor' when my team at work went out to a club opening and I downed a glass of wine, a beer, a glass of vodka, three tumblers of Jack straight, and a Starry Night. No foolish behavior (well, okay maybe a little), no vomiting, and no hangover.

13) I was asked by a black belt to drill a group of kids on their kicks during Hapkido, proving to myself that I actually do have the ability to teach kids and nurture them! Very surprising thing to learn about myself as I did not think this was something I was capable of.

14) My bowling average has reached its highest level ever. 125! Okay, so I still suck. But it's the least I've sucked up to this point.

15) After years of little to no creative activity, I've been writing haiku to encapsulate insights I gain from my Zen studies. I'm back in the creative saddle again, and it feels really good.

16) I took a 'vacation to Chicago', where I checked out art museums I hadn't been to in a long time, saw some great underground theatre, hung out with good friends, and had awesome conversations.

17) I eat sushi now!

18) I danced my way through tapings of the Chic-a-Go-Go show with some of my closest friends, and then three of us went out for pizza. The first time we three have been together in person for years.

19) While snorkeling in Panama City Beach, I swam within a giant school of thousands of transparent fish with neon blue stripes inside them.

20) I have kept Zen Throw Down going for almost 2 years. As of this writing, I've had about 3,500 hits.

I didn't have the year I planned, but I had a great year nonetheless! I hope everyone who might read this did too, and best wishes for 2011!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Thank You For the Music!

Jim got me some great CDs this Christmas, and his sister Chris gave me a $10 gift certificate for iTunes. So I went shopping today! Last year, I wrote a blog entry defending the wonderfulness of gift cards against those who assert they are not 'approptiate' gifts. Here's the link:

Since in that entry I suggest letting the person know what you you go Chris...all the wonderful stuff I was able to get with your gift card! Thank you!

Put Em Up EP - Ancient Astronauts
My purchases were pretty focused around the ESL label. Ancient Astronauts are a trip-hop outfit from Germany. I often dislike trip-hop of the kind they seem to produce (think Nightmares on Wax or Red Snapper) because the flow that most people love about this kind of music tends to bore me. The Put Em Up EP includes some sweet remixes that work better for me and get me chilled because it's a bit grittier and more melodic than the album versions.

Booty Lock - Frank Mitchell, Jr.
I heard the b-side to this single ('Body Mind') for free on ESL's website, where they make mixes of 5 to 6 tracks and then you can listen to them and buy the mix for a couple bucks. When I found the song on iTunes and saw it was the b-side, I had to check on the single. 'Booty Lock' was good enough to make me buy the whole thing.  Frank Mitchell, Jr. is a saxaphone player and vocalist who worked on Thievery Corporation's recent classic Radio Retaliation. This is his debut single and the music is funky, soulful deep house that's a bit more upbeat than most ESL stuff. Love it!

Tree Of Mystery - Kabanjak
Kabanjak is one half of the duo that makes up Ancient Astronauts (didn't know that). Picked up a few tracks off this release rather than the whole thing for the same reason I didn't buy the Ancient Astronauts full-length. Snapped up "Don't Worry", "The Man Who Spoke Flames", and a real mellow instrumental called "Rubicon". This stuff is really interesting, so I'm glad to have a few of these tracks in my collection. Will definitely see how they endure and watch for more Kabanjak in the future.

"Golden In The Gaze Of The Sun" - SW
I don't really know anything about SW but, given the global net lemongrassmusic casts to pick up talent, they could be from just about anywhere. This is a longer deep house track with a classic housey stacatto groove that is updated due to the ambience in this track. This track is from lemongrassmusic's Deep House Dreams 4 compilation, and I found it hypnotic in the samples so I was waiting for an opportunity to pick this up. Again, love the gift cards as I tend to use them in snatching one-off tracks from various artists I'm interested in trying out.

So that's what I was able to pick up thanks to Chris! But while I was shopping, I noticed French hip-hop artist MC Solaar has a release called Magnum 567 that is actually three of his albums (Cinquieme As, Mach 6, and Chapitre 7). And it looks like it's selling for the price of one CD! I have been listening to MC Solaar since the height of the acid jazz movement in the mid-90s. If you've been meaning to check him out, this is a golden opportunity! Of course, my favorite album of his remains his fourth album (I think) Paradisiaque.

As I mentioned, Jim got me some great CDs for Christmas, and here they are:

Amatorio - Federico Aubele
The latest by the Argentine guitarist and crooner. Reduced reliance on electronica and more focus on his vocals than on female singers as on hi prior two releases. Aubele is not the world's strongest voice, but his gentle delivery is a great fit for his music and guitar playing. I have all of his albums, and I'm really enjoying following him. Good to see that he's willing to alter his sound a little bit to try something a shade different!

Vieux Farka Toure Live
I was right! This was under the tree. Mississippi delta blues meets West African musical sensibilities. Can't wait to dive in, as I have snatched several free tracks over the last year from the ridiculously generous Six Degrees Global Noize blog. Link to the blog is on my list of links. You won't regret it!

Rue De Paris - Aqua Bassino
Scottish multi-instumentalist Aqua Bassino released this in 2006, but once I heard samples of this mish-mash of soul, acid-jazz, and electronica I had to have it! Haven't had a chance to dig in yet.

10th Anniversary - Kyoto Jazz Massive
This outfit of Japanese DJs are on the Compost label (Jazzanova, the Underwolves). I'd never heard of them before, but as often happens while trolling around the web and connecting from one artist to the next I stumbled on them. A double disk compilation that has more than a little acid-jazz flavoring, including their work as well as remixes done for established artists like Incognito and Da Lata.

Moon, Sun, & All Things - Ex Cathedra and Jeffrey Skidmore
And now for something completely different! This is baroque music from Latin America in the 17th and 18th Century, with lyrics sung in the Quechua language. I've been slowly amassing a lot of really old music: Renaissance lute music, Elizabethan music, etc. Stumbled on this because one of the ensembles that pitch in are the Quintessential Sackbut and Cornett Ensemble. I have both of their albums and love them both, so I guess I'm a groupie!

Lastly, due to how I am increasingly impressed with each new Thievery Corporation release, I picked up the items in their catalog that I do not have. That includes the two CDs below: The Cosmic Game and The Outernational Sound. So, in short, I'm glutted with new music for the time being!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Zazen Table

For Christmas, Jim gave me this statue of a man kneeling in meditation. I gave him automatic points for being supportive (per Jim: "anything that makes you calm down is a good thing").

The photo here is the table I sit before when in zazen, and I've added the statue to it. The table is about 14" square, sits low to the floor, and used to have little or nothing on it. I certainly wasn't planning on buying 'stuff', because I felt the plainness better accommodates the purpose of zazen. Besides, I use the table as a writing surface (my journal and copy of Katsuki Sekida's Mumonkan and Hekiganroku are kept under the table).

As mentioned in a prior post, I've firmly resisted buying Zen books or knick-knacks (i.e., no fancy tables, meditation cushions, etc.) because I felt making such purchases was placing my focus and energy in the wrong direction. In keeping with this approach, this 'table' is a plant stand Jim wasn't using and which I converted into my zazen table. I picked up the stone from the shore of Lake Michigan during my 'Pete Retreat' in October of 2006. This was the retreat where I spent a week alone in the Michigan country without TV, cell service, or people. During that time alone, I made great strides in self-understanding, self-assessment, and shed a great deal of illusion. I also wrote The Ancient Elm cycle of poetry (posted on this blog). I keep the stone on my zazen table because it is a physical reminder of the mind-set I was able to achieve during the 'Pete Retreat'.

The statue Jim gave me serves a similar function. When he first gave it to me, I was kind of like: "Hmm, do I really want this? Isn't this exactly what I told myself I would not do." But when I looked at it, I found that it depicts a man sitting in absolutely perfect zazen posture: erect but relaxed, back straight, head up, legs crossed in a full lotus (which I still can't manage too well, by the way). When I sit down to zazen, one look at this statue spurs me to my best zazen posture without my having to think about it. So I plan to keep it.

I suppose, in the final analysis, some might say that all my thinking about the statue and the table and my 'philosophy' about it is a kind of delusion. Why expend any energy thinking about this? That's a valid question. Perhaps it is a weakness on my part, but I have found that it makes a difference if I exert some thoughtful control over my zazen environment. As a result, right or wrong, my little zazen table shoved in the corner of my room is special to me. It's where I meditate, write haiku, wrestle with koans, and experience kensho/satori.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Kiss of the Dragon

My martial arts movie marathon continues. I hadn't watched this movie in a long time, so I wanted to give it another chance. Unfortunately, as I remember, Kiss of the Dragon is a weak martial arts film despite some sweet fights. The problem is the movie makes the fatal mistake of giving other elements equal importance to the martial arts performances, as well as being afraid to sacrifice some polish in order to optimally showcase of the chops of its star (Jet Li).

I'm not saying martial arts movies can't have strong plots, sub-plots, character development, love stories, etc. Nor am I saying that they shouldn't use technically strong cinematography or art direction. However, these elements must always be made to serve - and serve-up - the fight sequences. If this approach is not used, a film will usually tear itself apart. It will not deliver enough martial arts action to please fans of the genre, nor will it have enough of anything else to please the rest of the audience.

In Kiss of the Dragon, Luc Besson (a really talented writer/director) gives way too much screen time to a subplot with Bridget Fonda playing a crack ho trying to get her daughter back. Fonda gives it her best, but she's sunk by limp dialogue and the fact no one is watching for any reason except to see Jet Li. Additionally, director Chris Nahon clearly doesn't understand the genre at all. He shoots the entire movie the way he would if this were a Rambo film: loads of cutting, objects in the foreground, flashy cinematography, etc. That's fine for standard action flicks, but a martial arts movie often has to forego some of that polish to allow the audience to get a real good look at the martial artists in action. As a result of this inappropriate direction, even the strongest fight scenes in the film - and there are some good ones - don't have the impact they should because the movie gets in the way of us watching them.

Another aspect of the movie I did not like - again arising from the fact that the people in charge of the film just don't get this genre - is that there is nothing in the screenplay that provides Li's character with any kind of motivation or back story that suggests the spirit of the martial arts. Frankly, this movie could have starred any Hollywood action actor if you replaced the martial arts with gun fights.

Kiss of the Dragon is a timewaster at best. Even going in with that assumption, the best way to watch this movie would be to use the chapter menu to see Jet Li's fight scenes and then bail.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Sushi on the Menu

For the better part of twenty years, I have kept a mental list of foods I want to like but don't. I want to like them because they are easy to make or acquire in a fully prepared manner and because they are very healthy. In each case, though, I simply cannot make myself eat them because I dislike the taste or texture. Every couple years I make myself try these foods again in hopes that I will 'acquire the taste'.

This approach has worked for me before with yogurt. I used to hate the feel of yogurt in my mouth, even though I knew it would be awesome to have this as a snack food. One year I tried it and BAM; I liked it! And I've been eating it ever since. I think these are the key items on the list at present:
1) Oatmeal - Even warm and with cinnamon, it tastes like cold mucus to me. But it smells really good, and I'd love to wake up to that each morning.
2) Spinach - Bitter as an nasty old woman. But it's one of those dark green leafy veggies that is supposed to be so great for you. I've been able to eat it in pizza and as a side at Ethiopian restaurants. That's a start.
3) Sushi - It can taste good, but the texture in my mouth is just gross. I want to like it because it's seafood (good for you), and because I have this impression that it would be filling without making me feel bloated. Plus it's just kind of cool looking in the display, and I like those funky rotating bars.

The point of this post is that my efforts have paid off once again. Sushi is officially off the list and on my menu! I went to lunch with my good friend Cindy over this holiday, and she adores sushi.  I had a chance to try a bunch of stuff in a risk free environment. I loved it all! Some of it like the dragon roll (example pictured) did have cooked components, so I may be in the shallows of the sushi world as yet. In any case, I am psyched for my next sushi adventure. I know I can start with what I like and then pick a few weird items and, if I don't like them, oh well, I've still had a good, filling meal. Jim will never join me in this, so I'll have to latch onto Cindy for more lunch outings. LOL!

Happy happy happy!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Tom Yum Goong (The Protector)

The martial arts movie marathon continues...

The first thing that has to be said about The Protector is that the fight scenes are absolutely amazing! I'll just repeat what any review you might read about this movie is bound to say: the continuous shot of Tony Jaa fighting his way up the spiral stairs in the restaurant is without doubt one of the best martial arts fight scenes ever filmed. The single take approach in this scene and Jaa's athleticism make you to feel like you are right there watching him totally kick ass!

While I can't say enough about that scene, there are plenty of other amazing fights as well. There's a fight in a sleazy Thai 'massage parlor', a street fight pitting Jaa against a bicycle gang, Jaa against a huge black guy with the word 'pray' carved into his chest (and doing some crazy moves) in a burning temple, Jaa against what seems like fifty guys who he incapacitates one after the other in rapid fire movements. There's a let up between the fight scenes, but this movie really does not give you much of a break.

In fact, the international release of The Protector (over three hours in length), is an exhausting experience. It's so crammed with fight scenes and plot that I had to take a break! There's no doubt you will get your martial arts fix satisfied with this movie, and - as near as I could tell - almost the entire thing is real action. While there are a few scenes that could have been cut to make the film a little more digestible, The Protector dishes out action and fight sequences like an sub-automatic machine gun.

However, the film also manages to have a heart at its center. The first half hour or so has no fight scenes but set-up for the motivation of Jaa's character. This beginning is beautifully shot and very touching. From these idyllic Thai village scenes, the movie gradually moves deeper and deeper into a veritable heart of darkness of crime, drugs, prostitution, and black marketeering that will have PETA members crying their eyes out as they cheer Jaa on. If you're an animal right activist, you'll be on your feet during this movie, as Jaa's character is out to save his family's elephants - who are really integral members of his family.  This part of the movie involves some subtext that partially escapes me since I do not entirely understand the significance of elephants in Thai culture. Co-star Petchtai Wongkamlao's voice-over at the end explains some of it (they are a national symbol of Thailand). If so, then there's definitely a lot of imagery in the film around this (at the end an elephant saves Jaa's character in a very surprising way). However, I have no idea if it's a good subtext about traditions and national pride or just overwrought histrionics.

While Jaa is of course front and center and carries the movie very well, he gets quite a run for his money from an unusually strong supporting cast that elevate the movie with their presence. Johnny Tri Nguyen (he starred in and rocked The Rebel) plays a sexy street thug with sneering venom and very nearly steals every scene he's in. Petchtai Wongkamlao (who also co-starred with Jaa in Ong-Bak, The Thai Warrior) is hilarious as a feisty thinks-he's-hip Sydney cop. Xing Jing - a transsexual actress with a fantastic story in real life - plays a character deliciously clawing her way to the top of an organized crime family. Nathan Jones - a 6'11" Australian powerlifter (Fearless, Troy) - seems to be the go-to guy for a big bad white monster muscle, and he provides some real fun fight sequences. And you gotta give kudos to go to the actor who played Rick, the dumb white cop. In a hilarious reversal of racial roles, this guy has the thankless task of playing the side-kick cop who provides comedic relief but, when his character has outlived its usefulness, is unceremoniously capped.

The direction of The Protector is slick, masterful eye candy, again helping to set the movie at the top of the pack of martial arts releases. In the end, The Protector has a lot going for it. If you like martial arts films, it's a must see. If you require a great plot, you'll get that too although the story may be a little too scattered amongst all the side characters and subplots to have maximum impact for everyone. But one thing is for sure: when Jaa is doing his thing, The Protector is pure martial arts magic.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays!

I realized I didn't have a photo of our tree in the Holiday Bash post pics. Here it is, festive as always.

Happy Holidays to everyone who has stopped by Zen Thrown Down over the last year and a half, even if it's just for a minute or two.

I hope 2011 is a great year for all of us!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Haiku Thursday

garden of mountains
blind me to hills and vallies
journeys end and start

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Enforcer

My martial arts marathon hits a major piece of roadkill. This movie is a steaming pile of cow crap!

First of all, you have no choice but to watch it dubbed. Dubbing is always nasty, but the voices here remind me of something I'd hear on a Saturday morning cartoon. But that unforgivable sin pales when - after sitting halfway through this - I had seen no martial arts to speak of. Instead, there's scene after scene of some spunky little kid with his sick mommy and a woman police inspector whose point is...? The villain is a cartoonish douchebag who's not interesting enough to wait around for Jet Li to take out, and Li's undercover cop has 'fuzz' written so plainly across him that you just roll your eyes out of your head at the plot/script. I shut this piece of garbage off half-way through. Nothing was happening, and I was about to toss my lunch over the mom's deathbed scene (who cares?), the goofy lesbian gangster, and the bad dubbing. Avoid at all costs.

Worst of all is this is a Dragon Dynasty release! I have been head over heels in love with every Dragon Dynasty release I have purchased up to this point, but there was zero effort put into this and no legitimate reason why they would add such a poor entry to their line of martial arts films - especially in this condition. Obviously, I can't trust the Dragon Dynasty logo anymore. That's a big shame.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


The martial arts movie marathon continues....

...although there's probably a lot of people who would call it sacrilege to describe Hero as a martial arts movie. The film relies very heavily on wire-fu, and the martial art performances take a back seat to flashy cinematography and art direction. Think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with an even greater emphasis on atmosphere and just enough swordplay to qualify for the fringes of the genre.

While Hero will likely fail to deliver on any level for a martial arts fanboy (or girl), there's no question it possesses the 'martial arts vibe' under its high gloss facade. Jet Li and Donnie Yen are two of the stars, yet Donnie Yen's role is almost a cameo. And while the fight sequences are definitely about art over form, the fight between Li and Yen works well very well and it's too bad that it couldn't have been longer.

In the end, Hero would be best described as a martial arts flavored arthouse film. If that description doesn't sound like your cup of tea, I assure you Hero is not for you. Otherwise, enjoy!

Sinus Cavity Issues

I'm very, very bummed out. I haven't been able to lift for a month, and I haven't been able to effectively practice hapkido in nearly two months. My sinus cavity had become so clogged and my deviated septum (i.e., when the bone under your nose is tilted so as to reduce the size of one nasal passage) had caused so much swelling that I couldn't get enough air to sustain any athletic activity without becoming winded within minutes. I tried to tough it out but, at the last martial arts I went to, I had to sit down twice gasping for air. The second time, I seriously thought I was going to pass out.

My ENT doc did a CAT scan, and it showed that I had fluid gathering in the blue and green areas above. The fluid and lack of other 'problems' is a good sign, because it means I've just got an infection. So they put me on my third set of antibiotics. This one is a doozy, though. Apparently, it increases the chance of muscle tear or injury. I'd probably be okay because the risk is greatest for older people, but why chance it? It's not like I can function properly in class anyway. They also put me on a steroid and an inhaler to open things up so I drain better. This has been great, because the drainage was clogging my throat like glue, and I constantly felt the need to hack. At some points, everytime I took a breath I could feel this weight of gunk in my throat. After all this is cleared up, I'm probably going to get surgery done to reduce the problem of the deviated septum, which is what makes these infections more likely to occur and really tough to get rid of when they happen. Plus, I'll be able to breath more easily in general.

In the meantime, though, I'm not about to lose my stuff! I scoured the web for all sorts of stretching exercises used by martial artists so that I can keep limber, and I've been practicing my forms religiously so I don't lose them. Now that the clogging is reduced, I may even try a little practice at home with the bag to keep my boxing skills at the level I'd got them to. I'll probably hold off on weights until well after the new year. Free weights are probably the most likely way for me to get injured, so best to avoid that.

I feel really guilty about ditching out for so long, but I keep telling myself it's the smart thing to do.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Zen Stairway Challenge

This challenge is a little something I concocted as a way to clear my mind and slow down. It was quite some time before I could complete a staircase. It's very, very hard. Give it a try sometime and see what you learn.

The next time you're about to walk down a flight of stairs, take the first step down and STOP. Both feet on the same riser, standing straight with your hands hanging at your side as if you plan to just stand there for a while.

First, feel how weird it is to stand still in a place our minds are so used to us moving in while not really thinking. Control your impulse to go down the rest of the stairs. Relax and do not move at all. Once you are able to do this for a few minutes (and I mean minutes not seconds), take the next step down and stop.

On this step, sort through all the 'to dos' in your head at the moment. Push all of them aside except for the ONE thing you plan to do when you reach the bottom of the stairs. By one thing, I mean: make a sandwich or empty the dryer (note not make a sandwich and eat it while reading a magazine or emptying the drier and then filling it with the clothes from the washer...I really do mean ONE thing). Think about this task all by itself as if it's the only thing you have to do that day. You need to spend a few minutes at least with this task to have a chance at getting it right. When you can clear you mind enough to focus on that one task, take the next step down and stop.

Now, think about the action you plan to take once you reach the bottom of the stairs. Whether you get there now or in ten minutes or a half an hour, the task will still be waiting for you (obviously you shouldn't be attempting this challenge if the cat is climbing the Christmas tree or the kids are beating each other with bats). The task is patiently waiting for you, not demanding your attention. There's no rush. It is the only thing you have to do. Think about what it would be like to stand here relaxed and quiet for 15 minutes knowing you'll be able to pick up your activities afterwards with nothing lost. If you're really doing this right, you should be feeling an odd sense or relaxation and serenity. Once you feel it, savor it for a few minutes. Then take another step down and stop.

Look at something around you, the less interesting it is the better. A piece of crumpled paper or a knick-knack on the shelf that you look at everyday. Look at it. Really look at it. Note how the light is hitting it or where there are imperfections or how it is colored. Recalling memories of when you bought it or what you've done with it is not what we're after here, because that's not looking at the object. Focus on it, not your reactions to it. If you're thinking much, it should be things like: "It's red" or "It's got some dust on the side".  Do not think about cleaning it (if you saw the dust) or how you use it or where you should move it or whatever.  In fact, dismiss any action thoughts because that only your usual undisciplined mindset trying to wrest control away from you. Once you have your action thoughts fended off and have spent several minutes with the object you chose, take a step down and stop.

Listen for some ambient sound. Maybe a bird singing outside or a plane passing by or the wind. Just listen to it. Your only purpose right now is to listen. During this time, you should not think about anything but the sound. Remember, you only have one thing that you immediately need to get done at the bottom of the stairs and it will be waiting for you whether you get there now or an hour from now. So no thinking or planning or fretting. Once you clear your mind and focus only on that sound, take a step down and stop.

Think about your breathing. Slow it down.  If you're doing this right, it should already be noticeably softer and slower. Slowly breathe in through your nose, expanding your belly to let the air in. Then slowly exhale, using your stomach muscles to gently push the air out. Do this for a minute or two.  Once you clear your mind and focus only on your breathing, take a step down and stop.

This should be plenty challenging but you can certainly keep going and add as many tasks as you like or pick a new sound or object for the remaining stairs or - best of all - reassert full control over your mind by taking the next step and then stopping to focus on your breathing again and nothing else. The goal is to eliminate thinking about anything outside of the moment you are in. No planning, no stewing about what he/she said the other day that pissed you off, no wondering what you will have for dinner. You should feel calm and 'blank' but yet feel extremely alert. You're not zoned-out, you're focused. What you are experiencing is a disciplined state of mind in which YOU - not the 'whirl of life' - are in control.

How many steps can you manage before you end up just darting downstairs? Don't feel bad if it's only one or two, this isn't easy at all. Attaining (and ultimately maintaining at all times) a disciplined state of mind that is clear, relaxed, and focused is one of the great goals of Zen meditation.

PS: Snatched the pic off the web. It's a stairway winding through the gardens of the Ginkaku-ji temple in Kyoto. No especial meaning for me; it just seemed like a good visual.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ip Man

I'm off until January 3rd, and one of my projects during this time is to relax with as many martial arts movies as I can fit in. So expect to see a lot of reviews over the next couple weeks. This afternoon, I watched Ip Man for the first time.

Ip Man is a 'biopic' but - from the little I have read - it's probably only loosely based on its subject's actual life. Played by Donnie Yen (also seen in Hero and Seven Swords), Ip Man is a supremely talented martial artist who lives peacefully in Fo Shan, a place renowned for its martial artists. The Japanese invasion of China during WWII destroys his idyllic existence. Master Ip and everyone around him are suddenly poor and life becomes a brutal struggle for existence. In the movie, the former Fo Shan masters have to resort to going to a 'fight club' in order to earn bags of rice to stay alive. The film does a very good job of conveying the harsh existence of the time.

In the title role, Donnie Yen's serene presence works very well. I've noticed in all of his films that he has this calm but powerful vibe emanating from him. It makes him a great choice to play a martial arts master. However, he is also able to convey deep emotion just by very subtle things he does with his face or posture. For instance, when he smiles, it's so rare that it takes on major importance. When he calls the translator Li a traitor, there's a sudden hardness in his face that's just a shade different from his usual stoicism, but it's enough and it tells you everything you need to know. I found myself just watching him very closely because of this, and his performance rewarded the attention.

Admittedly, the plot of Ip Man is rather thin. There are several characters with arcs of one sort or another, but the movie ends up focused mostly on the horrors of life under the Japanese occupation as opposed to any deep insight into Master Ip or his philosophy (though there is certainly some of that to be found here). One big plus to this was that it left room for a lot of martial arts sequences to be smoothly woven into the story.

On the downside the focus on the occupation - especially through the dingy, depressing light in which these scenes are filmed - rendered Ip Man a bit cold and soulless at times. I feel like a good martial arts movie, even one dealing with dark or tragic subjects, should still reflect the spirit of the martial arts (which is not about darkness or post-modern angst). While the movie clearly wants to convey the horrors of occupation, I think it would have been a better move (and more poignant) to rely upon the actors and characters to get this across. For example, the scene where Master Ip confesses to his wife how useless he feels was extremely touching, as was the scene when Yuan opens the mysterious tin box his brother had been searching for. The desperation of the millworkers and that of the bandits who blackmail them was also compelling, but this conflict really didn't go anywhere specific.

Overall, I liked Ip Man and found it very moving, and I guess I'm picking at it because it's good enough to merit that kind of dissection. Most importantly, the martial arts sequences in Ip Man are very good. Much of the close-in fighting is especially tight and furious (and from what I understand the Wing Chun form is more about fighting at close range). Master Ip and Master Liu (another of the former Fo Shan masters) both had moves that make you want to reach for the rewind button. There was also great work from the actor who played the scruffy challenger from the north. A few less cuts would have enhanced the WOW! factor at times, and there is some unneeded use of wire fu. Not dissing wire fu in total, but the fact is that the best martial arts movies are the ones where you can best see the artists showing their skills with 'no strings attached' (that's why we watch!). So if you have good artists in the movie, it should be used sparingly. That said, Ip Man definitely delivers plenty of good martial arts, as well as a great performance from Donnie Yen and very moving story. Excellent movie!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Tai Chi Master

Tai Chi Master is a tongue-in-cheek film, but it still has the spirit a good martial arts flick needs in order to work. The movie has a great cast of characters headed by Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and Chin Siu Ho (who also teamed up with Li in the awesome Fist of Legend). I like this movie a lot, but it's probably not a film to rent if you're checking out martial arts movies for the first time. The production values are a little rough, which becomes quite evident with the wire-fu acrobatics (as in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero). There's also a lot of slapstick humor. Sometimes it's really funny but other times...well let's just say you'll be scratching your head more than once.
What I like best about Tai Chi Master is the friendship between Jun Bao (Li) and Tien Bao (Ho) which sits at the core of the film. Li and Ho have great chemistry, and it's no surprise they have worked together more than once. Jun and Tien become instant friends when they meet as children and find they share a deep fascination and dedication for the martial arts. Jun is a naive and disciplined, while Tien is mischievous and ambitious. As young men, they go out into the world and take wildly different paths which lead them into fundamental conflict with one another. The connection between the characters and the two male leads is what makes the film work.
The plot is good, yet still works in serving up lots of fight sequences. My only gripe there is that, with a star like Li, it's hard to understand why they went so over the top with some of the wire-fu. I'd have been much happier just watching Li do his thing without the effects. Wire-fu often requires too many slo-mos and cuts to work well in a movie that's a rough in the production department. A heavier focus on real fighting would have made the movie even stronger. I imagine part of the reason for the choice is that with the tongue-in-cheek tone, the action sequences needed to be a bit more cotton candy. Think an American action movie with their sometimes over-the-top stunts.
By the way, make sure you watch/buy the uncut international version with the option to watch in the original language with English subtitles. If you want dubbed English, you'll have the choice. I mention this because many martial arts movies are chopped and hacked for US audiences and sometimes a way to tell if you're getting something like that is that they don't offer Chinese with English subtitles as an option. I bought Dragon Dynasty's Special Collector's Edition of Tai Chi Master to ensure I got the real deal.

Friday, December 17, 2010

No Haiku For You!

Sorry, no Haiku Thursday this week. For all the millions of people who were sitting on the edge of their seat waiting for this week's post, I apologize. Blame it on the holidays! Oh all right, I admit it. I'm just lazy!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


I am creating this post on my new iPad! Tried to post a pic, but can't figure that out just yet. I looooove my iPad!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Holiday Bash 2010

Each year, Jim and I throw a Holiday Bash for our friends. It's become a bit of a tradition with a big spread by Jim and a holiday grab bag event. Been doing it for something like 8-10 years now and this one was one of the best yet! Had about 32 people there and, as always it was a varied group, but everyone is friendly to everyone else whether they know them or not, which is what makes the parties so much fun for me. Here's some always click them for a larger view. Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

President Obama: What Are You Doing?

Let me start by saying that I like the job President Obama has been doing. Naturally he's done a few things I disagree with (some rather deeply), but overall I think he's doing a good job, and he's certainly a vast improvement over the last administration in every possible way. Further, in the face of the most belligerent, unpatriotic party politics in living memory (that's YOU Republican Party), he has kept cool and not descended to their level. Of course, we all know the opposition he faces from some Republicans and Tea Partiers is so vehement because of his skin color rather than his policies. And all that with two wars and the worst economy since the Depression. Talk about grace under pressure.

While I'm glad he hasn't descended to the level of the Republicans, at some point the gloves have to come off or you're just being a wimp. When the Republicans threatened to be do nothings unless the Bush tax cuts were extended, I think it was time to call their bluff. The Republicans' position is essentially that 'tax cuts for billionaires' is the most important issue in America today. More important than keeping people from losing their houses. More important than jobs. More important than military spending to support our troops. More important than cutting the deficit. More important than every other bit of business America needs to deal with.

Frankly, I think there are enough people who would be disgusted by this position that the Republicans would have to cave in or they would quickly find themselves the focus of the American people's anger. Another possibility is that a few sensible Republicans would break ranks to do the job they were elected to do. In either case, we would would get what we need done without giving in to the demands of congresspeople paying back their wealthy backers so they have campaign dough for the next election.

Even if I accept the idea of deals being cut to get legislation through, the Republican tax cuts are spending (or cutting revenue) by a gagillion times what Obama wants to spend for the unemployment extensions. Just how exactly how is this a compromise? Sounds like he's giving up a lot more than he's getting. That's being a sucker, not compromising. If I wanted this kind of policy-making, I may as well have voted for McCain!

I guess I'm just lost as to what he's trying to accomplish here.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Battle of the Warriors

A martial arts movie that is more battle epic than hand-to-hand combat, Battle of the Warriors takes place in China almost 2500 years ago. My Chinese history is a bit - er - dusty, but the movie does a great job of laying out the background. This is a wartorn time, and the city of Liang is about to be besieged by an army that has to steamroll through it to get to their real military target. Raw deal.

Enter Ge Li (the amazing Andy Lau), a Mozi that the slimy king of Liang has begged to come protect the city. How can one man defend a city against an army? With brains, strategy, and cunning psychology. While there are plenty of battles in this movie, the real core of Battle of the Warriors is the planning - the game of chess - that takes place between the invaders and Li as each side plots their next move or parries that of the opponent. I've never seen a war movie that is so much about the tactical planning of war, and it was fascinating. Of course this focus means the movie is a little slow at times, but I was never not interested. The battle scenes are really creative and the tactics devised by each side to attain their objectives are amazing. I even recognized tenets I remember reading in The Art of War surface in Ge Li and his adversaries' thinking, which was awesome!

In addition to masterful battle scenes, Battle of the Warriors also has tremendous cinematography, wonderful acting, and great costumes and sets. There's even a tragic love story thrown in. As affecting as the love story was, I'm glad they kept it at the subplot level. I generally find it a weakness when a martial arts film lets a love story get too front and center; this one is kept on the backburner where it belongs and it adds spice rather than getting in the way of what the movie is really about.

The main theme of the film is how war only creates more and deeper conflict, a sentiment Andy Lau's Li actually verbalizes in one of the final scenes. This theme is illustrated very effectively in the way different characters become mistrustful, turn on one another, and backstab or even destroy each other (sometimes unintentionally) as a result of the conflict they are trying to win. This theme is also given life by the fact that Ge Li is a Mohist/Mozi. Of course, this piece of the story will be a bit unclear for some viewers. For example, about half way through the movie a character accuses Ge Li of always talking about 'universal love'. Huh? The guy never said a word about it up to that point! As far as I recall, anyway.

This piece of the movie relies on a bit of historical backstory that is probably obvious to Chinese audiences. I had to look it up. The Mohists apparently were militant pacifists during this wartorn time. They were master strategists who defended people from large armies as a means of thwarting military ambitions, and there's some religious/philosophical underpinnings to their beliefs that are generally distasteful to anyone in a position of power. As such, to defend the city Li does not launch attacks. His work is all defensive, yet very much aimed at prevailing. In this case, the goal is outlasting an army that can't afford the effort and losses of a long siege. Li's defenses are cunning, powerful, and deadly enough to daunt even a battle-hardened army. In short, he's not the kind of pacifist who gets his way by sticking flowers in the barrels of guns. He's someone you do NOT want to be stuck attacking!

I enjoyed Battle of the Warriors, and I'd recommend it to martial arts buffs who are okay with no hand-to-hand combat epic flicks and will have some patience for the few times the plot demands it. And thanks to Dragon Dynasty for bringing another great martial arts movie to US audiences!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Haiku Thursdays

raking all morning
winds scatter the leaves again
a day well spent

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Toothpaste on Chic-A-go-go

Here's the performance of Toothpaste, with me , John, and Gretchen rocking in the back. Camilo - Gretchen's boyfriend - is the lead singer. Rock that puppet, Gretchen!

Saturday, December 4, 2010


Gretchen's boyfriend is in a band called Toothpaste that performed at a cable access show called Chic-A-go-go. Obviously the name of the show is play on the city's name, and the show bills itself as a 'dance show for kids of all ages'. With over 700 shows, Chic-A-go-go has been go-go-going for a long time (sorry, couldn't resist that little bit of wordplay). It's sort of like a psychedelic collision of Soul Train and Captain Kangaroo. Off-beat bands perform, there's a knock-knock joke telling rat puppet, and many of the people who attend as audience members dress up real crazy.

I met up with my friends Gretchen and John at the Chic-A-go-go studio this evening, and we danced through a series of tapings. Bonus was that there was a phone-in guest 'appearance' by Fred Schneider of the B-52s! The show - and our dancing - will be airing on cable TV sometime soon, though I'm not sure I'm ready for the world to see that. Assuming I can live with it, I'll post it on here. In the meantime, here's a picture of us (along with a friend of Gretchen's on the far right and Gretchen's metalhead puppet) standing on the Chic-A-go-go set.

After the taping, Gretchen, John, and I went for pizza and then a drink in Greektown. Wonderful night with great friends and lots of catching up!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Civil Unions in Illinois!

After almost 15 years of commitment - longer than most straight marriages last - Jim and I are on the verge of finally be able to obtain some (though not all) of the rights a couple of 19-year-old heteros can get by getting stoopid drunk at a club and then wandering into a chapel on the Vegas Strip. Thanks to Representative Greg Harris (pictured) who co-sponsored the bill and to all the people who made it's passage possible!

Personally, I don't think many of the straight people who are against gay marriage really and truly understand what it means to be in a serious, long-term, committed relationship and yet be denied the rights straight people enjoy in their relationships. If they really understood what it means to have to face that, I think many of them would be unable to oppose gay marriage any longer.

Here's what Chicago's Mayor Daley had to say: "[E]ventually, [gay] marriage will take place. It has to. . ." Daley said. "These are great citizens. They're a tremendous resource for us in our great city. I'm very proud of the relationship that I had with them over many years. And it's really important for us to move forward. These are people [who] have families. These are people [who] work in every sector of our society. They should not be discriminated against in any way whatsoever."

Yeah! What he said.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Haiku Thursdays

breath of sea of sky
yesterday today tomorrow
long after I am gone

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Top 5 Songs of 2010

It may be a little early to be making 'best of' lists for 2010, but it's unlikely that during the next month I will find additional songs I enjoy and to which I can develop a lasting emotional attachment.  Not enough time really. That's how I picked these songs. They are listed in no particular order.

"The Last Days of Disco" - Glam Sam and His Combo
This is probably my single favorite song of 2010. It's from Glam Sam's second album The Paradise Groove. There is such a fresh, summery, free energy about this track that just makes me want to throw a big party where everyone is dancing and celebrating life in full-on sunshine! Fabulous track from the lemongrassmusic label.
"Fafa" - Vieux Farka Toure
Vieux is the son of Ali Farka Toure, a guitarist from Mali who I first heard when his song "Ai Du" appeared in the French movie L'Auberge Espagnole. It's moody, electric, and bluesy all at one time. "Fafa" has some of that power, but I can definitely hear the younger Toure making his mark here as well. Can never decide if his music belongs in some bayou deep in Louisiana or around a campfire in Mali. Maybe both! The live CD this track comes from is probably under the Christmas tree with my name on it right now.

"Tonight" - Samantha James
I had to put something from Samantha James' second CD Subconscious in this list. It was a tough choice to pick one track, because so many songs from this fantastic deep house album struck a nerve with me. I chose this one because, like "The Last Days of Disco", it has a warm feel that makes you want to celebrate the moment you are in. However, this song's lyrics actually speak to that very emotion and the soothing feel of the track puts you in mind of a warm summer night. Another winner from the Om label.

"No Time" - Gaudi
I dare you not to move when you listen to this track. The beat is high energy and driving, complete with a phat rasta vocalist (Dr. Israel). Gaudi is an Italian producer and arranger who I heard came to light while working behind the scenes on the show X Factor. While I'm sure his work there was as generic as American Idol fodder, Gaudi definitely has chops. Entire albums by producers rarely work for me, but this track is throbbing, thumping, and slammin'! Off his No Prisoners CD from Six Degrees.

"Forget Me" - BT
Like Samantha James, BT put out a phenomenal album in 2010: These Hopeful Machines. A stellar trance producer, BT has spent years positioning himself as some sort of breakbeat mixologist (with iffy results). This album does a fantastic job of fusing his pretensions with his trance roots and even grafts in his closet pop sensibilities. There are a lot of gems on this CD, but "Forget Me" is especially rousing with its surging emotions and aching vocals about the 'beautiful mistake' of life. The song totally had me but, when the chorus break down reveals a child (BT's child actually) singing, I got goosebumps. These Hopeful Machines is BT's best work since his debut (which is one of my favorite albums of all time).

Honorable Mentions

"The Passing Stars" - Thievery Corporation. This is a new track off their best of disk (It Takes a Thief). I had to add it because these guys have become my favorite band. While they have more compelling tracks in their catalog, what I like about this one is that it merges a lot of the differing sounds they have been playing around with for the last 15 or so years into one delicious 3-minute slice of chilled-out downtempo.

"Rocket To Uranus" - Vengaboys and Perez Hilton. I know, I know, I know. This piece of Eurocheese is shallow, silly, and it has Perez Hilton on it. What on earth am I thinking? Answer: I can't help it! It's fun, it's filthy, the video is just a blast to watch, and it has Perez Hilton on it (clearly enjoying himself immensely). Not everything has to be deep.

Hope you check out these tracks and artists. They are proof there is good music being made these days; you just won't find it on the radio, MTV, the charts, or carried in a Walmart.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Mumonkan, Koan 9: Daitsu Chisho Buddha

A monk asked Koyo Seijo, "Daitsu Chisho Buddha sat in zazen for ten kalpas and could not attain Buddhahood. He did not become a Buddha. How could this be?" Seijo said, "Your question is quite self-explanatory." The monk asked, "He meditated so long; why could he not attain Buddhahood?" Seijo said, "Because he did not become a Buddha."

Meditating does not equal becoming a Buddha (i.e., being enlightened). It's merely a tool to control and discipline the mind. It should help you get there (and there are some Zen practitioners who would tell you it's the only way to get there), but I doubt anyone would say meditating guarantees it. Most simply, Seijo's explanation means that if he did not become a Buddha then he did not become a Buddha. Period. Sitting in zazen for a million years isn't going to make a difference.  Being enlightened occurs when you achieve the right mindstate, both in zazen and in your life. If you fail to do this, then it doesn't matter what else you do.

I had read this koan and meditated on it years ago - well before I bought my copy of Mumonkan - and I'd come up with this solution. However, when I read it this time, I felt like my understanding of the solution was deeper and my understanding of the implications more complex. This suggests a very positive thing to me: that the more I learn while practicing Zen the deeper and more meaningful my responses will become. In a sense, I could return to any of these koans a few years from now and expand my understanding.

I've been keeping all my reactions to the koans in a written Zen journal, as I found it helps cement things in my mind if I write it down. Later, it can be helpful as a sort of a review. This helps me build on what I have learned. Given my discovery about being able to return to koans and get more out of them, I think this journal will be a great way to continue building my understanding.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Mumonkan, Koan 8: Keichu the Wheelmaker

Gettan Osho said, "Keichu, the first wheelmaker, made a cart whose wheels had a hundred spokes. Now, suppose you took a cart and removed both the wheels and the axle. What would you have?"

This one took me a while to figure out, but I guess most of them do. Not that common for me to automatically 'get it'. My solution might be different from Mumon's, but I think I get to the same place he did. I focused on the fact that without wheels a cart cannot function and that Keichu's cart had such intricate wheels. A crude but well-made wheel will function - or allow the cart to function - as well as a beautiful one made by a master. 

In his verse, Mumon writes:

When the spiritual wheels turns,
Even the master fails to follow them.
They travel in all directions, above and below,
North, south, east, and west.

I think this addresses the idea that I'm speaking of above. They physical wheel doesn't matter, so long as the spiritual wheel turns.

I may not have this one completely after all. As I'm writing here, I feel like there's still a piece I'm missing. I can think it, but I'm having trouble putting it into words. Maybe I need to meditate some more on this one, after all.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Haiku Thursdays

howling winter night
all creation takes shelter
I pursue the wolves

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hits From Around The World

According to the stats page on my blog, which I've just now discovered, Zen Throw Down has received almost 2,500 hits so far. While that figure isn't going to get anyone to pay me for ad space, I'm very pleased I've been read by that many people. Clearly people other than my friends are dropping by, and I've checked to see if me visiting a page is counted as a hit (it's not). Here's my top 6 posts in terms of number of visits.

1. Concrete Poetry (5/6/10) - 95 visits
2. Delayed Halloween Post (11/2/10) - 23 visits
3. Droid X (8/8/10) - 21 visits
4. Bliss, Quiet Letters (7/2/10) - 16 visits
5. Emilie Autumn's Victorian Asylum (7/26/10) - 15 visits
6. Beset By Owls! (11/21/10) - 15 visits

Some of the hits are from surfers drawn via searches (for images or music). However, not all of them are, and I've had hits from Canada, Brazil, the UK, Poland, India, France, Hungary, Australia, Trinidad and Tobago, Saudi Arabia, Ireland, and much more. I find this incredibly encouraging.

Hey all of you! If you stop by, drop me a note and say "hi!". I'm curious about the people I'm making a momentary connection with and what they read on here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chicago Vacation: Postscript

Gretchen sent me one of the pics from Garbage Fest! Truly memorable night of theatre and performance! Definitely click this to see the full size. From what I gather this monster was made partially of sofa cushions that were painted as needed.

Chicago Vacation: Day 3

Last day of my vacation was similarly a bit busier than I had planned on. Today was the Mag Mile! I started off Michigan Avenue at a used book store. They weren't geared for the true antiquarian bibliophile, but I did find a hard copy edition of Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott. Good buy since I would not want to spend a whole lot on his work at this point. After that it was up to the Mag Mile for window shopping and Christmas shopping. I got Jim something really nice (but I can't say what it is because it's a surprise!). I ate lunch at Baisi Thai at 900 North Michigan Avenue. Tried something semi-sushi: an octopus and sea kelp salad. It was actually very good.

While I see no reason to run on about this or that store, I did spend some time in one of the galleries along the strip: Hilligoss Galleries. Lovely interior with cordial staff. Some of the painting were quite appealing. Several of the artists were into a sort of post-impressionist style with heavy impasto that I quite liked. Not exactly edgy (subject matter ranged from Venice, flowers, water lilies, and portraits of ladies), but something I could certainly see hanging in the living room if I found just the right piece.  While I liked the paintings and they were well-executed, there is part of me that feels if I am going to pay a gallery price then I would prefer something that's less decorative and a bit more of a 'statement'. I suppose a purchase of that magnitude really should approached as an investment rather than as an expensive indulgence to fill a space on a wall.

After napping for part of the afternoon (by this time I was truly wiped out from walking around so much), I had dinner with my friend David at an Italian place in my old neighborhood. The place was actually located about a block from an apartment I rented in the city for a couple years on Broadway.  After dinner, we skipped the frou-frou desserts for ice cream sundaes.

Next morning, I walked around a bit but really just packed and relaxed before checking out and bringing this brief sojourn to an end.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Chicago Vacation: Day 2 (part two)

Okay, so after the Art Institute, my back was broken from standing around so much (ah, yes, the advance of age and infirmity!). Had a great lunch, and then went home to nap before my 1.5 hour hot stone massage in the hotel spa. Soooooo nice after a strenuous day bumming around the city.

Later that night I met up with Gretchen and her boyfriend Camilo for dinner at some little Mexican joint is Pilsen, and then we went to see Garbage Fest, a night of performance art/theatre. From what I can gather they kinda squat in a building and set up shop (and stage). So not sure how legal it is, but the various plays we saw were very thought-provoking and enjoyable. Plus, it so takes me back to my twenties to be in the city and just wandering into something really amazing just because there is so much going on in the city.

The place was decked out in these huge replicas of Garbage Pail Kids. Gretchen snapped a pic of me with this big fat satanic baby, but I haven't got the pic yet to post here. The hostess of the event was dressed up as a trashed up woman and I think she was carrying a forty with her while she gave 'drunken' introductions to the performers. The night started with a weird sort of wedding ceremony that was more flatulent than creative. Then these two guys came out and did a sort of weird intro (but I couldn't understand much of what they were saying into their mic). Their section ended well though. They had a strobe light behind a fan and were playing a repeated sound of what I think was a slowed down needle getting pulled across a vinyl record. The one guy was hunched over a tin bucket and yelled into the mic (NO. ONE. IS. FORCING. YOU. TO. DO. A. WHOLE. BUNCH. OF. STUFF. THAT. YOU. DON'T. WANT. TO. DO.). The other guys would emerge from behind the speakers and at set intervals timed to the words being said, approached the other guy and dumped some metal 'coins' in his bucket. Then the yelling guy immediately dumped them out and they did it again. Over and over and over and OVER!!! You start thinking, "This is pointless; why don't they just stop? AHA! I get it! Why don't any of us, right? Very futurist/theatre of the absurd.

The next guy came out in a strange yellow suit and did a bit of a monologue/prose poem/one man show. Part of his piece was lying out a replica of himself in his yellow suit on the floor made out of pieces of some kind of plastic. He was a little all over the place and the piece probably could have done better had he tried to not do so much. Still it was thought-provoking as you were watching it.

Then this other guy comes out with some sort of makeshift mixing board and for twenty minutes (the max time allowed), makes the most ear grinding noise by warping and twisting the noise created from his contraption. Interspersed with the noise were fragments of radio or TV programming from a snippet of a basketball sportscast to the Lava jingle to laugh tracks. By the end, many of us were plugging our ears because the noise was so loud that it made you worry about your hearing. Okay, I get it. The media is noise and we can't stand listening to it, but we don't shut it off. Still it was a bit overly annoying, though I guess theatre like this is supposed to be anti-entertaining to a certain extent. I still would have liked to wring the neck of the young guy in charge of this sound torture chamber by the time it was over.

The final piece was much bigger in scope. About ten actors/dancers involved. They were each dressed in a costume that was based off old oriental ritual garb, but instead of ornamentation the costumes bore trash: empty milkshake containers, fast food carry out containers, scraps of fabric, etc. They were moving around a maypole like contraption as an eastern-styled piece of music that sounded ritualistic droned on with gongs going off every so often. They paced around in a daze and then started trading junk with one another as they passed each other. Then they brought all their junk to the center and engaged in a frenzied dance like some sort of psychedelic voodoo ceremony. The theme obviously was the fetishization of commodities. It depicted society as a group of religious zealots/hoarders gathering and swapping their junk, oblivious to anything else. Falls flat in my text, but it was pretty hypnotic to see it performed largely due to the actors being so into the 'characters' and the really elaborate and clever trash/fetish gear.

Day 2 was over and I'm extremely pleased I decided to take a 'vacation' with some of that 'use it or lose it' PTO time, rather than just taking a bunch of 'days off.'

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Beset by Owls!

We've been noticing for the past week or so that there is a spot on our driveway that has been slowly accumulating layers of bird crap. The area is only the size of a manhole cover, so it seemed odd that birds were dumping so much in exactly the same spot. Then a day or two ago, Jim noticed some big chunks of fuzz amid the bird crap. He figured a bird must be roosting in the tree above on that spot, and then he saw owl! That explains the fuzzballs, since owls vomit up the fur and bones of their meals.

When I came home from Chicago, Jim pointed out the owl to me but I couldn't see it. It took me a few seconds because it is so well camouflaged amid the dead leaves and tree bark. This morning, while putting the christmas lights up, I went over to check out our owl and saw a drop of bird crap in a different spot under the tree. I looked up and saw a second owl! And yes, the first one was still in his perch so it truly is a second owl. Plus they look very different. Owl number two has lighter coloring and is much fatter.

I have never seen a real owl before! They're perched about fifteen feet off the ground, and they don't seem at all disturbed by us.  Of course, we're not wanting to disturb them as they are likely eating a lot of mice and other undesirables infesting the area. While the bird crap and fuzzy pellet vomit are kind of unsightly, I hope they stay with us a long time! Here's some pics of our new housemates. Click on the pics to make them bigger.

Same day update: An old friend I've been able to reconnect with on Facebook (hi, Emily!) asked what kind of owls they were. I had to confess I was so excited to see them that I hadn't even bothered to learn this. After a search on the web, I believe they are eastern screech owls.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Chicago Vacation: Day 2 (part one)

Missed a day blogging, but I am so beat from this vacation that I'm glad I have the next week off.

Started Thursday off slow with some Zen journaling, but then I got out and went to the Art Institute. I wanted to have a good long time to spend there before my hot rock massage, and it turned out that I needed the time. I spent about 4-5 hours at the Art Institute and the best was that I went mostly to galleries that I traditionally do not go to. I avoided all the modern art, Impressionism, Expressionism, and Surrealism galleries. Instead, I went to the Thorne Miniature Rooms (intricate models of room interiors throughout the last several hundred years), the new location for the armor collection (a great visit though it didn't look like they had even half of the collection out), the restored Chagall wall (have to admit it seemed a lot more impressive when I was a kid), Far East art (including the new Ando Gallery), and the contemporary art wing (always a hoot). However, the best was the seated Buddhas.

I also stopped into the Richard Hawkins exhibition (Third Mind). I always enter contemporary art exhibitions with some trepidation because if you don't like the artist then it's a downer. If you do, however, it's wonderful fodder for the imagination and really enjoyable. This was definitely the latter. I haven't read the brochure that was provided at the entrance, so I'm only assuming he's gay (pretty safe bet based on the art). I mention this fact because, knowing he was colored my initial reaction to his art. The exhibition was broken up into many rooms, each with varying styles. He does everything from collage to installations to sculpture so it was a wonderfully varied set of pieces.

One of the initial rooms had pictures along the lines of this one, collages incorporated pieces of Classical art with words scripted onto them. The text on them (unfortunately I could only find a tame example to snag off the web) commented on the 'delectable posterior', the genitalia, and the amount of come one of the youth sculptures might produce were he real, and insinuations of Roman men rubbing against the statues for sexual gratification. My first reaction was: "Oh here's another tired queen making everything into a sex joke."

But as I read more of the pieces, I realized he was visually declaring something that I had always sort of felt about this art. Some of this stuff is clearly sexual in content and was intended to celebrate the male form for largely male viewers and we all know homosexuality was a much less taboo topic then than it is today in our allegedly post-Victorian world. All I can say is that Hawkins is 'outing' art. None of the tip-toeing around the homoerotic content that you usually see in write-ups of the material. He confronts it head on in graphic language. Brilliant! He uses a similar approach with heavy metal artists and Asian male models, exposing the rampant homoeroticism that threads through the history of all societies.

All in all, it was a long, literally back-breaking morning and afternoon in the Art Institute. Okay, this is getting to be a very long entry. I'll hold off on writing about the rest of this day until later. Gotta get out there to enjoy the last morning of my Chicago vacation.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Haiku Thursdays

the cocoon splits
and the butterfly feels pain

Chicago Vacation: Day 1

Day one ended up being unexpectedly busy! If I do this again, I need to schedule more time to make sure I can relax.

While I waited for the room to be ready for check-in, I walked a couple blocks over to the Museum of Contemporary Art to check what they had up. The thing that always strikes me about that building is that it seems like there's an awful lot of wasted room/space that could go to displaying art. One of the exhibitions was called Lost and Found and it was various sculptures on display. Of course, I didn't memorize any of the artists names, and the museum website doesn't list them. And the few images they show on the website give you the message: "image protected by copyright laws" if you try to copy it. Yeah, it's all about the art, isn't it? I mean, I know I don't have a zillion people reading this blog, but why would an artist not want people posting examples of their work on blogs? Artists do make work to be SEEN, right? I mean isn't that the point? To have as many people see your work as possible?

This exhibition was very interesting. There was one work call "Weeds" that looked like a plant, but it was made of scraps of newspaper and magazine. Very visual comment on the media. Another piece I liked was called "Dialectic" (I think), and it was a wall of cinder blocks with the holes filled with material that was very simplistically rendered to look like faces. The eyes and mouths were holes that went all the way through to the back of the wall. Then there were two light sources, one shining on the front of the wall and the other backlighting it. They alternated slowly coming on and off, so that the faces were first illuminated and then back lit with light coming through the eye and mouth holes. All sorts of images went through my mind from the obvious: we're all just bricks in the wall, to stuff more specific to this work: illuminated face equals being communicated to while the back lit face is the individual thinking/reacting what they hear and all of us separated from one another. Very evocative work.

Another piece was two buddhist statues kneeling and facing one another in prayer position. Between them a string hung taught from one statue's hand to the others. In the middle of the string, a safety pin was suspended. Again this is an extremely evocative image. Is it some kind of statement about how we build these grand edifices called 'religions' merely to provide ourselves with tiny little comforts or is it a statement that two two praying people are in complicity to make each other feel safe and secure through shared religious belief, which isn't a particularly savory comment on religion overall.

Another exhibition was a single artist retrospective. The artist was Luc Tuymans, who creates simplified paintings (not minimalistic per se) of everyday objects based on photographed objects which he uses as his reference material. His approach (and pallette) really left me cold, with its unvarying and amateurish-looking approach. Too often, the pieces were so drained of anything that would compel serious introspection or engagement that you'd have to know the artist's objectives for the works to resonate, rather than having them stand on their own and speak on their own. He did have several pieces that justified the approach (and I was able to snag one off the web for this posting!). It's called "Within". It's a jail or gate with nothing back darkness beyond. This piece really makes you ponder some serious questions while you're trying to figure it out. Am I within? Or am I standing outside and looking at what is within? If I'm outside what does that say about that perspective; if inside the same question holds. Does my interpretation of the painting perspective say something about how I feel in general? Plus Tuymans' pallette really works here, creating a very ominous mood.

Another exhibit was called Contested Territory which, according to the MCA website "explores the continued conversation between history and present as well as the artist's ongoing duel with tradition as they test themselves, their materials, and the tradition of painting to keep it relevant and alive." One artist, in particular, from this collection really interested me: Leon Golub. Just glad the MCA mentioned him on the website or I would not have remembered his name at all! I snagged a pic of one of the works shown ("Reclining Youth"), which I really liked a lot. Apparently, he lays down paint and then (I think) uses chemicals or turpentine or something to corrode or chip it away and then relayers it to create a sort of eroded look. Some of his work using classical period themes (as in "Reclining Youth" which is layout is very much ancient Greek). I felt like his approach replicated in painting the passage of time around these images, almost creating the same ancient, worn appearance in his modern painting as we see in distressed sculpture from ancient societies.  Interesting way to rethink depicting standard artistic themes as well as paying homage to ancient works.

The last exhibition was around urban China, but it felt a little to cutesy-kiddie for me. Probably an 'outreach' thing of some sort. So I had a very good time at the musueum. In a way, I guess I didn't realize how much I saw in this visit. There's something positive about a musuem that doens't have so much stuff that you can't possible react to it all. I probably spent more time with the pieces here because I knew that I was going to see the whole museum so why rush?

After checking in and getting settled, I went out to have dinner with my old friend Ray. Should have got a pic to show here!!! Nice long conversation over a much needed burger/tater tot meal. Then I went to my old haunt Reckless Records and picked up Thievery Corporation's CD The Cosmic Game, which I cited in an earlier post as being sort of 'more of the same' and I skipped buying it. Well, Radio Retaliation has continued to impress me with its power and craft, so I thought I better give the Thievery boys the benefit of th doubt and grab this one. Came home quite tired and pleased with my first half day of this Chicago adventure.